Britain forces Europe to clean up abbatoirs

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Jack Cunningham, the Minister of Agriculture, was poised to secure a deal last night, forcing Britain's EU partners to meet tougher meat safety standards. But he warned that he would press ahead with a ban on sales of Continental beef and lamb from countries which refuse to clean up their abattoirs.

Seven of the 15 EU agriculture ministers were holding out against the new rules as talks continued last night, but eight are needed to block the European Commission from forcing the measures through. Portugal and Finland were considering siding with the UK, pending assurances that implementation of the rules would be delayed a month. With their backing, Britain can be assured the deal will go through. Opposing governments, led by Germany and Austria, meanwhile continued to resist the extension Europe-wide of British rules which would require the removal and destruction of cattle and sheep offal which could harbour BSE, or its sheep equivalent, scrapie.

Brains, eyes, tonsils and spinal cord have to be cut out and destroyed at the point of slaughter in Britain, but only a handful of other member states impose such standards.

Ireland and France, which together account for most of Britain's beef imports are among those who do.

Angered partly by Britain's failure to police its own beef export ban, and by what they see as London's bid to "turn the tables" on Europe, some governments argued that the offal ban was unnecessary because of the low incidence of BSE and scrapie in their herds.

The cost of overhauling slaughterhouses would be disproportionate to any potential health risk, they claimed.

Mr Cunningham said that whatever the outcome of the vote in Brussels, British consumers would benefit from increased protection. "Whatever happens, British people will be protected because if there is no agreement here I will introduce orders in the House of Commons ensuring that beef coming into Britain will be subject to the same rigorous safeguards as British beef".

He defended the threat as "consistent with our determination to put public health at the top of our agenda". Mr Cunningham said that the offending organs, which scientists suspect pose a greater risk of transmitting BSE infection than ordinary meat, could be cut out "at source' or in designated plants in the UK after import. It is extremely unlikely that importers or supermarket chains would want to bear the extra cost however.

The effect of Mr Cunningham's order therefore would be to ban meat from plants which refuse to voluntarily upgrade their premises.

Franz Fischler, the EU Agriculture Commissioner, urged ministers to back the measures on the basis that their controls have been shown to be alarmingly lax and that therefore they cannot reliably claim to be BSE or scrapie- free. Even if the incidence of the disease is much lower outside the UK, the rules of the single market require uniform slaughtering standards, he said.