French scientific expert challenged at safety meeting

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The French scientific expert chairing talks aimed at resolving the beef row was challenged about a conflict of interest today.

The French scientific expert chairing talks aimed at resolving the beef row was challenged about a conflict of interest today.

Professor Gerard Pascal's presiding role was called into question as the 16-strong team of independent scientists who will decide the fate of British beef exports began crucial talks in Brussels.

Concerns were first raised by the European Commission that a Frenchman should be in charge - particularly one who has admitted frankly that remaining impartial in the emotive beef war with Britain would be difficult.

A fortnight ago Prof Pascal, head of research at a food safety institute in Paris, was quoted in French newspapers as saying the decision to lift the ban on British beef might have to be reconsidered because of new safety fears.

This week he said: "It is not easy to forget one's nationality, it really isn't. But in the case that is before us now we are all doing our best".

The remarks were enough to raise concerns within the Commission, despite the Professor's impeccable credentials and the official independence of the Scientific Steering Committee, the most important of about 30 EU committees which routinely vet policy proposals governing laws on nutrition, animal health and food safety.

Today it was expected that the Professor would issue a firm reassurance of his impartiality before continuing to chair the vital talks.

A second Frenchman is on the committee. Britain is the only country to have four independent experts in attendance.

Today one EU official said: "The Committee has decided it needs this debate about procedure first. But you could say that if the independence of Frenchmen at such a meeting is in question, then so is the independence of any Britons who are taking part."

None of the committee members arriving for today's meeting was prepared to comment, apart from confirming that the aim was to reach a consensus.

That could come today or tomorrow, with the European Commission waiting just a few streets away for word which could determine the outcome of the bitter Anglo-French dispute.

Any decision from the Committee will be in the form of a non-binding recommendation to food safety Commissioner David Byrne, who will then advise his fellow Commissioners what to do next.

The Commissioners' next scheduled meeting is Wednesday - but an emergency gathering may be staged before that to settle the beef issue once the Committee's recommendation has been received.

Meanwhile European Commission Vice President Neil Kinnock today warned it could take "years" to lift the French beef ban - even if a scientific committee meeting in Brussels rules there is no backing for the action.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme the commission would take action if the scientific committee decided there was no new evidence to justify the ban.

"In the end, our basic obligation is to uphold the treaty, uphold the law - and the law is that the beef ban should be lifted.

"The French are currently the exception to that rule. The French know that very well, which is why I think that rather than have a long, dragged out legal process - which is a possibility of course - they will engage in a diplomatic outcome to what is now a crisis and does not serve anybody's interests."

Mr Kinnock, however, acknowledged that if that does not happen any legal action could take a long time to achieve its results.

He said: "What would happen if the commission decided that there was a legal case to answer is a due process which would lead us to addressing the court of justice.

"The problem is that while the commission could be confident of the grounds on which it takes the issue to court, the process takes a very, very long time - it could take years.

Last night, French Agriculture Minister Jean Glavany suggested it might be possible to reach some kind of "intermediate solution" to the problem.

He told France Inter radio: "The way out of the crisis is perhaps to lift the embargo, add stipulations and make inspections more strict."

Mr Glavany repeated the message in a speech to the National Assembly: "In order for the scientists to change their minds, we'll either have to get tougher conditions on lifting the European Union embargo or we'll have to get tougher controls (on British beef) - or both."