Germans unrepentant on UK beef

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The Independent Online
'POLITICALLY, the simplest thing would be to say nothing.' The German Health Minister, Horst Seehofer, firmly denies British allegations that his publicly expressed worries about 'mad- cow disease', or BSE, are scaremongering, or intended to gain election-year publicity.

Instead, he insists that his worries are based, above all, on the results of a conference on BSE held in Berlin at the end of last year, as a result of which scientists concluded that, because of the uncertainties, the rules on the import of British cattle and beef products should be further tightened.

In an interview with the Independent, Mr Seehofer said: 'With the best will in the world, I can't say that I don't care, and just leave that report in a drawer. What would you do?' He holds his hands in front of him, in a gesture that says: 'My hands are tied.'

Gillian Shephard, the British Agriculture Minister, argued recently that Germany had retreated from its demands for tougher action on BSE. But this may have been mere wishful thinking.

Mr Seehofer said that he wants action on BSE to be discussed in the German cabinet, 'before the end of this month'. At the same time, he acknowledged that Brussels may continue to be unimpressed by the German arguments, which 11 of the European 12 rejected last month.

In those circumstances, Mr Seehofer is ready to press for Germany to act alone - regardless of how embarrassing that might prove to be for Germany's Euro-friendly reputation. Chancellor Helmut Kohl is unenthusiastic about being dragged into such a quagmire.

Mr Seehofer insists that the different approaches in Germany and Britain are not the beginning of protectionism - which is how the British see it - but represent different mentalities in the two countries. The amount of British beef imported by Germany is in any case small. 'I think it's a different interpretation of health precautions. (The British) say it's only a problem if the danger is proven; we say that there's a problem if a possible danger exists.'

The long incubation time of BSE, and the uncertainties about how it is transmitted, mean that the Germans are wary of what lies ahead. With reference to a scandal that erupted last year over Aids-infected blood transfusions, Mr Seehofer said: 'People are asking us now why we acted so late - we could have avoided several hundred infections, if we had acted sooner.' Therefore, he argued, caution is justified with BSE, since it is 'improbable, but not excluded' that humans could be infected.

In a separate interview, the German agriculture minister, Jochen Borchert - who has been publicly more cautious than Mr Seehofer - also made it clear that Bonn is unwilling to give way. Mr Borchert hinted at possible German defiance if the Commission did not accept the German view. 'If there's no European solution, then we must look at national possibilities,' he said.