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Germany ends ban on importing British beef

Germany caved in to European pressure yesterday and grudgingly lifted its ban on British beef imports, leaving the French isolated in their resistance.

On the final day of an EU ultimatum to embrace British steaks or face fines, the German parliament's upper chamber voted narrowly to scrap the four-year ban.

Britain's Agriculture minister, Nick Brown, was delighted. "This decision leaves France isolated and facing court action," he said. "I hope the French will now see sense and obey the law."

Mr Brown also expressed the hope of "winning back customers in Germany with high-quality British produce". This is unlikely, though, as controversy rages on.

Fearing massive fines, the German federal government reluctantly fell in line with the EU decision last year. But in matters of such importance, the 16 Länder have the final say, and even a few days ago it appeared they would defy Berlin and Brussels. Chancellor Gerhard Schröder then persuaded one of the objecting states, Saxony, to defect to its side. That swung the vote in the government's favour. But nearly half the regions voted against, and two of them immediately signalled that they had not yet given up the fight. The strongest resistance has come from Germany's most populous Land, North Rhine-Westphalia, which had contrived to banish British beef from the shelves long before the EU imposed its ban.

The regional Environment minister, Bärbel Höhn, remains a vociferous critic. "I appreciate British efforts, but we have new information to suggest that British beef is not safe," she declared yesterday.

She pointed to a recent finding that BSE was more widely transmitted than hitherto believed. The Green politician added that 2,600 cases of BSE had been detected in Britain in the last year alone.

Bavaria's Health minister, Barbara Stamm, also cited fresh evidence suggesting that British beef remained unsafe. Ms Stamm said 50 people had died of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease contracted from contaminated beef, and thousands more would fall ill in the coming years. Because of the disease's long incubation period, the import ban should not be lifted until next year at the earliest, she added.

The federal government had wanted to label British imports, preferably with the Union Flag and a health warning. But under a compromise, British beef will only be marked with the acronym "XEL".

Germany imported only a few hundred tons of British beef in the year before the embargo, and as consumer fears linger, is expected to import even less now.