US and Brussels try to defuse trade row

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US Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman and EU Farm Commissioner Franz Fischler held talks in Oxford last night to try to halt a tit-for- tat trade war. Stephen Goodwin reports on the makings of a multi-billion pound dispute.

As the US vented frustration yesterday at what it regards as Europe's attempts to use food safety arguments to keep out American pharmaceutical, cosmetic and farm products, Britain's ban on imports of meat not matching UK hygiene standards was declared legal by the European Commission.

The ban, requiring all beef sold in Britain to be de-boned first, was condemned as "legally unjustifiable" by Germany's Farm Minister, Jochen Borchert, who insisted no EU government had the right to impose trade restrictions without the consent of the others first.

But Mr Fischler told a farming conference in Oxford: "The requirement that beef sold in the UK must be de-boned applies equally to beef imported from other member-states and third countries. This does not break Community law."

But earlier Mr Fischler, addressing the conference before a private meeting with Mr Glickman, was critical of last month's US decision to halt imports of beef and lamb from EU countries because of BSE.

The action breached international obligations, came without prior consultations and at a crucial time in discussions on draft veterinary accord, he said. "Nevertheless, I will do everything possible to avoid a damaging trade dispute." Mr Glickman said any differences had to be resolved quickly, fairly and amicably.

Mr Fischler reports back on his meeting with Mr Glickman to EU farm ministers in two weeks, when the stalled veterinary agreement will be on the table. At stake is $3bn (pounds 1.87bn) of transatlantic trade.

The Americans are angry over the pending ban on "risk materials" such as brains and spinal cords. Tallow is extensively used in US pharmaceuticals and cosmetics. Mr Glickman said the there was no scientific basis for the ban.

The tit-for-tat nature of the dispute was heightened when, after the US action, Brussels said it would ban all US beef and poultry unless controls on dangerous hormones and antibiotic residues in fresh meat are tightened.