Britain digs heels in over beef ban

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Indy Politics

By Jo Dillon, Political Correspondent

By Jo Dillon, Political Correspondent

31 October 1999

BRITAIN is digging its heels in ahead of talks with the French government over the future of beef exports this week and appears to have abandoned entering into any "face-saving" compromise with Paris.

The Government last night vowed to keep up the pressure on France to back down in the food war after European Union scientific experts unanimously ruled British beef was safe.

The Ministry of Agriculture, backed by the Prime Minister, insisted that their clear decision meant the French had no option but to lift their illegal ban "very quickly". Agriculture minister Nick Brown will make the case to his French counterpart Jean Glavaney and European food commissioner David Byrne in meetings later this week.

Yesterday Foreign Secretary Robin Cook voiced the Government's defiant mood, saying: "There is now no reasonable case for maintaining a ban against British beef."

A spokesman for MAFF said: "The scientific decision could not have been clearer that the beef we were exporting under the date-based exports scheme is completely safe. The committee went out of its way to stress that and we now expect a fairly rapid settlement."

Asked whether the Government would take any concessions to the talks table next week, the spokesman replied: "When we go to that meeting we will go armed with the knowledge that the beef we are proposing to export is a completely safe product and there is no problem with it. "

The French were looking for further guarantees of the safety of British beef and enhanced safety checks. But MAFF said: "There is already a scheme with guarantees built into it. It is those conditions that the committee unanimously said were safe."

The French consumers' association urged its government to keep the ban in place. "There is a feeling of relevancy on the doubt and history has shown that we are never too prudent," a spokeswoman said yesterday.

And Hans Kretzschmar, a University of Göttingen scientist who made recommendations to the scientific steering committee, said he was "surprised" by the final verdict. He told the newspaper Libération that, if asked, he would tell the German health minister "to wait, like the French until the end of the incubation period, probably until 2001" before lifting the ban. Germany is still denying access to British beef until its parliament votes to lift the ban.

The Government has been forced to accept it must step up its efforts to get British beef back into world markets to shore up the flagging farming industry.

Tony Blair last night said that he would host an "export drive" meeting in Downing Street next month, bringing together farmers' leaders and representatives of the relevant ministries."The meeting will be to get a big push behind British beef in markets, not just in Europe but worldwide," a spokesman said.

On Wednesday David Byrne will make recommendations to the European Commission about whether to launch a legal action against France.

"I think to do it diplomatically is the right way forward," said Mr Brown, "but of course we will recourse to law if we have to."