Minister sanguine over beef setback

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The agriculture minister, Dr Jack Cunningham, said yesterday it was "disappointing" that United Kingdom proposals for ending the worldwide ban on British beef had been dismissed as "inadequate" by veterinary experts meeting in Brussels.

But, answering an emergency question in the Commons, he denied it amounted to a "slap in the face" for the Government and insisted that officials would work quickly to try and meet concerns expressed by the experts. "We are already considering very carefully the points made and will give them a detailed technical response very quickly," Dr Cunningham said.

Plans for lifting the export ban, involving the so-called "certified herd scheme" for mainly grass-fed animals, was submitted by the Conservative government.

But the European Union's Scientific Veterinary Committee yesterday rejected the package "because the scientific rationale and the information provided was insufficient".

Dr Cunningham said the committee had suggested "that changes needed to be made to the UK proposals before they would be acceptable. It is disappointing that the Scientific Veterinary Committee has asked for further clarification when they did not take up our offer to send an expert to explain our proposals at a earlier stage." He added: "We are not surprised that they have some criticisms."

"Officials are in Brussels today and discussions will continue over the next few days," he said. "We recognise that all consumers will be anxious to have full assurances in line with sound scientific assessments of risk. At the same time we will press for the removal of the ban where those assurances can be given."

The Tory Euro-sceptic Sir Teddy Taylor, who tabled the emergency question, said: "We have simply had another slap in the face based on wholly irrational arguments, like `what is the definition of a herd?'."

He pressed Dr Cunningham: "Hasn't the time come for the Government to impose restrictions on imports from nations whose standards of safety are lower than our own?" He added: "Despite all your hard work and the endeavours the Government has made for non-confrontation and friendship, they've simply had another slap in the face and they should do something about it."

Dr Cunningham replied: "I never anticipated that I would be able to undo in five weeks all the disastrous misjudgments of the previous government over five years. So I don't regard this as a slap in the face."

The minister insisted: "There is no row going on about this. It's perfectly reasonable for what is an independent scientific committee to raise some questions about some important matters.

Dr Cunningham said that he would not fix a firm date for the ban on beef to lifted.

He noted some 160,000 metric tonnes of beef was expected to be imported into Britain this year, "somewhere between 20 per cent and 25 per cent of the beef consumed in the UK market". He also said the cost to the meat industry had been "catastrophic" - about pounds 800m, while the cost to farmers was "incalculable".

Dr Cunningham told the House that at the latest count on 4 June there had been 169,349 confirmed cases of BSE in Britain. There were now 100 new cases of mad cow disease a week, which, he said, was a reduced rate but still much higher than in any other similarly affected country.