British beef exports set to resume next year as EU backs precautions

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The Independent Online

The findings, published yesterday, were seen as the beginning of the final chapter in the "beef war" that erupted after BSE took hold in the UK in the 1990s, prompting a worldwide ban on British exports.

At present, less than 1,000 tons of British meat is exported under two schemes with strict controls on production.

But if the overall ban is lifted, as expected next year, normal trade in beef and live cattle would resume for the first time in a decade. Philip Tod, spokesman for the European Commission, said yesterday that the report on a recent inspection mission to the UK was considered "favourable", fulfilling the second of two preconditions set by the Commission for lifting the embargo.

EU member states must now decide whether the ban can be lifted, with only a qualified majority of them needed to secure the raising of the embargo. If the issue is deadlocked, the Commission will ultimately be able to raise the embargo under the EU's complex voting rules.

One negative scenario, under which a qualified majority of states vote to keep the ban, looks unlikely. When the document was discussed yesterday only five of the 25 nations raised questions, and France - the fiercest critic of UK beef - remained silent. Officials believe that the procedure will reach a positive conclusion next year.

However, MEPs will also give their verdict on the issue and, though not binding, a "no" vote would make it politically more complicated to lift the embargo.

The ban was imposed in 1996 when it was clear there was a link between BSE and a human equivalent that has killed more than 100 people. The incidence of BSE in Britain has slumped from 37,280 cases in 1992 to 342 last year.

Though the reputation of British beef has taken a battering abroad, producers expect a new demand if the ban is lifted.