The European Commission yesterday imposed a world-wide ban on the export of British beef, as Europe grappled with what has now become its biggest food crisis in recent memory.
As panic spread throughout the Continent over a slump in European beef sales, the Dutch government ordered the slaughter of 64,000 British cattle in the Netherlands and advised its public not to eat British beef. France, where sales have fallen by 30 per cent since last week, called for an emergency European Union meeting.
Britain's persistent protestations that there is no scientific evidence of a link between BSE and its human equivalent were swept aside when the Commission moved to try to restore European consumer confidence and markets by "ring-fencing" Britain. "The fact that there is no proof that there is no link is leading us to act," said Franz Fischler, the European agriculture commissioner, as he outlined the ban to the European parliament.
The ban on British beef and beef products will be constantly reviewed, the Commission said. However, initial reports that it might be lifted in six weeks were refuted by Mr Fischler, who said the ban would stay in place "as long as we are not satisfied that the threat is lifted".
The statement imposing the ban stated: "The measures ban the export of all live cattle, beef and beef products from the United Kingdom to other European Union countries and to the rest of the world." The ban covers any medicinal, pharmaceutical or cosmetic products using beef extracts, but does not include milk or dairy products.
In an effort to spur Britain into agreeing a slaughter plan in order to bring the crisis under control, the Commission offered to help compensate British farmers and stabilise the stricken British market, once proposals had been brought forward by London.
However, Mr Fischler would not be drawn on how much money the Commission might offer, putting the onus squarely on Britain to produce clear eradication proposals for discussion with Brussels.
"The Commission is ready to assist the UK both in terms of support for stabilising the beef market aimed at safeguarding incomes and in further control measures against BSE," he said. However, at a press conference later Mr Fischler insisted: "There are no blank cheques. Nor should the impression be given that we are waiting to run out and pay. I can't produce a figure nor am I going to."
The Commissioner revealed that he had telephoned Douglas Hogg, the agriculture minister, yesterday when Mr Hogg had agreed to come to Brussels with a team of experts to discuss eradication plans. No timing for the visit was given, and Mr Fischler would only say it would be "within weeks". A committee of specialists from all EU states is to visit Britain to examine any measures to eradicate BSE.
As Brussels braced for the inevitable condemnation from Britain over the ban, Mr Fischler stressed that the decision had been taken in the interests of the entire European industry.
"This decision constitutes the first step towards stabilising the situation, reassuring consumers on the safety of beef and safeguarding the EU's beef industry both internally and externally," said the state ment.
Mr Fischler cited the decision by Egypt to ban all EU live animals, as one example of why it had been necessary to impose a world-wide ban on British beef exports.
Mad cows abroad
Cases of BSE reported in other countries:
Republic of Ireland: 123
Portugal: 31 (Three were cattle imported from Britain)
Falkland Islands: 1
* In the last six countries the infected herd was imported.
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