'I know what they say we feed our cattle. It is false'

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Indy Politics

In a cavernous barn full of prime Charolais cattle, Jean-Marie Rohart was filling the feeding troughs with hay from his own farm. The air smelt of pasture.

In a cavernous barn full of prime Charolais cattle, Jean-Marie Rohart was filling the feeding troughs with hay from his own farm. The air smelt of pasture.

"Look at this," he said, lowering his pitchfork and grasping a handful of the sweet, yellow grass. "This is pure, this is good. I have heard the accusations. I know what they say we feed our cattle. I know they say that we feed them with sewage but it is not true. It is false."

On Tuesday afternoon Mr Rohart was among the small group of French farmers who temporarily blockaded British truck-drivers with their tractors at the Eurotunnel freight terminal at Coquelles, near Calais. Yesterday he was back on his farm in the small village of Peuplinques, a few miles from where the mouth of the Channel Tunnel opens on to French soil, satisfied that his point had been made.

"We do not want war with the British people. This was a gesture in response to the boycott," he said. "The farmers are angry with the boycott of French produce but if the boycott is lifted everything will be all right."

Mr Rohart, a senior official with the regional branch of the union that represents French farmers, the FDSEA, appeared keen to make conciliatory noises yesterday afternoon. But he, like the rest of the union members, are seriously concerned that the British boycott of French produce could increase to a level damaging to those who export to Britain.

Trade with Britain is worth billions of francs a year to the French farming community and while not all farmers are exporters - Mr Rohart included - their presence on Tuesday was an act of solidarity with those who are.

The French farmers feel that they, and not the British, are the victims. "I don't really understand why the British public is acting in this way," said Mr Rohart. "This [the view that British beef remains unsafe] is what our scientists have said. The battle should not be with the farmers, it should be with the scientists."

But there is another side to this. Mr Rohart yesterday said that if today's announcement by EU scientists in Brussels stated that British beef was safe to eat, the French ban, which started this current skirmish, should be lifted immediately. However Mr Rohart, like many other French farmers, remains unconvinced that British beef offers no risk to consumers.

"I don't think that British beef is safe," he admitted. "In France when you have a cow that has BSE, we will kill the whole herd. In Britain when you have the same situation you only kill the cow that is ill. In France we are very careful about the safety of our animals."

Indeed, despite last week's EU report which said some French farmers had been routinely giving their animals feed contaminated with human and animal waste, there has been real scorn among some farmers towards Britain's claims that its products are safe and natural.

On Tuesday afternoon when the blockaders broke the Customs' seals and entered the British trucks at Coquelles they were delighted to discover large, untempting blocks of frozen mechanically recovered chicken, apparently destined for diners in Moscow.

"This new breed chicken which is produced by those lecturers from across the Channel.... We ought to give them to our vets to analyse," Jean-Bernard Bayard, local president of the farmers' union, told the Nord Littoral newspaper. "Their findings certainly would be interesting."

Some are more generous towards British beef. The men and women serving behind the meat counters in one of the many hypermarkets in Calais insisted they would love to be able to offer beef from across the Channel. "There is no reason why we should not have it for sale," said one.

And traditional butchers also claimed they would be happy for the ban to be lifted. In the centre of Calais yesterday morning Yves Gavel was among a number of traditional butchers who had set up their stalls in the outdoor market that offered everything from fresh fish to large, glistening horse livers.

"I don't think there is any difference between French beef and British beef. They are the same," he said, wrapping up an order of sausages.

But how far did his feelings go? Did he for instance have any illicit British beef for sale this morning? "No, sorry, no," he smiled. "Everything here is French."