Whitehall set for autumn offensive in beef war

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The government will today launch an autumn campaign to end the six-month- old beef ban by seeking to persuade European scientists, meeting in Brussels, that fewer cattle need to be culled than first agreed.

It is now more than two months since John Major claimed victory in the beef war at the Florence summit, saying he had won assurances from his European partners that the ban would soon be over. Mr Major even suggested that the next phase in lifting the ban could start as soon as November.

However, as Brussels returned to work this week, there was no sign of further easing of the blockade until well into next year, or later. The Government's only hope of a breakthrough lies in its ability to persuade other member states that new scientific evidence, published last month in Nature magazine, justifies a reduction in the number of British cattle which need to be slaughtered. If the slaughter plan can be cut back, the Government stands more chance of winning approval for its eradication measures in a House of Commons vote next month. The Nature study has played into the hands of Euro-sceptics who have used it as proof that the original EU-agreed slaughter plan was too harsh. Any easing of the world-wide beef ban depends on Britain's implementation of an agreed slaughter plan.

The new evidence, produced by scientists in Oxford, will be discussed for the first time today by members of the EU's veterinary committee.

The study suggested that the number of cattle which must be slaughtered to clear British herds of BSE might be lower than the 147,000 envisaged in a selective cull plan agreed by EU experts in July. In particular, the study suggested that new evidence, that BSE can be transmitted from cow to calf, should be taken into account in a revised culling plan, and that BSE would be eradicated from Britain by 2001.

Commission experts say the Oxford findings are being taken very seriously and could lead to a review of the way cattle are targeted for slaughter. But Britain's hopes that it may secure a reduction in the number of cattle targeted for culling are likely to be dashed.

Other member states are continuing to take a hard line against Britain, arguing that much remains to be done to restore consumer confidence in beef. Germany in particular looks certain to oppose any reduction in the number of cattle slaughtered. The German milk industry has even called for a ban on the import of British milk, following the evidence that BSE can be transmitted to calves. However, Commission experts say there is no evidence that milk can become infected, and has criticised the German move.

Today's preliminary discussions on a cull reduction will be referred to other specialist committees later in the month, before final decisions are taken by EU agriculture ministers.

In a separate initiative aimed at restoring order to the beef market today, the Commission will propose that all other EU member states agree to ban bovine offals, as a precautionary measure. It will also propose that certain sheep offals be removed from the food chain.

To date, other member states have refused to institute the same measures in force in Britain on the grounds that they have no BSE problem. The Commission believes the ban on such offals throughout the EU is common sense.