'If we let in British beef, our market might collapse once again'

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The Independent Online

Andr&eavute; retired this year after 35 years as a farmer. He intended to supplement his pension by keeping a few cows to produce beef calves. But his few remaining unlet fields are empty this winter.

Andr&eavute; retired this year after 35 years as a farmer. He intended to supplement his pension by keeping a few cows to produce beef calves. But his few remaining unlet fields are empty this winter.

"There's no point in keeping the mother cows," he said. "What's the point when beef calves are selling at Fr100 (£10) each? A few years ago you could sell calves for 10 times that. Now you might as well shoot them at birth. It costs you more to send them to market than you bring back with you."

André, my neighbour in Normandy, at least has his pension. All over France, active beef farmers are struggling to survive, 18 months after France's "second" BSE crisis caused a 50 per cent plunge in beef consumption.

This winter, French shoppers have been buying beef again. The French are not as poultry-obsessed at Christmas as the British. Butchers in Paris report there has been a high demand for top-quality beef this year – as long as its French provenance is guaranteed, down to the label telling you the breed of the animal, the day it was born, in which region and on what farm. And yet the prices paid to French beef farmers – even top-quality beef farmers – remain disastrously low. French beef exports are in the doldrums, suffering from overlapping BSE and foot-and-mouth crises, both originating in Britain. French consumer confidence in beef has recovered but remains fragile.

Small wonder that the French government will spend the first part of 2002 (a double election year) finding new technical and political arguments to defy a European Court ruling ordering an end to the French ban on imports of British beef.

Into this already fraught situation, there will soon arrive an explosive statistical curiosity.

In the week before Christmas, a farm near the Belgian border was found to have France's 500th case of BSE. More than half of the French cases – 258 – have occurred this year. This is 50 per cent up on last year's figure, which was itself more than 500 per cent up on 1999.

As the incidence of the disease falls sharply in Britain it seems likely that France will have more BSE cases than Britain in 2002 and become statistically the worst afflicted country in the world.

The numbers are in some respects misleading but none the less politically explosive. How can France continue to block imports of British beef next year, defying EU law, if it has more BSE cases than Britain? How can Paris argue – as it will – that Britain has still not controlled the disease, when the UK cases are shrinking towards zero and French cases are increasing? In truth, leaving aside the political arguments, both sets of figures, the British and the French, are hugely encouraging. The BSE epidemic has clearly been vanquished in Britain at last. The number of French cases is rising but rising slowly, suggesting that France will escape the kind of uncontrolled explosion of the disease which Britain saw from 1989 onwards The 258 cases recorded in France this year are equivalent to the number of cases found in Britain every two-and-a-half days at the pinnacle of the BSE crisis in 1992 and 1993.

It should also be remembered that France is now testing every animal over 24 months old which goes to the abattoir – the most draconian testing system for BSE in the world. Of this year's cases, 75 were discovered in this way. Taking the figures for random outbreaks alone, there has been no dramatic increase in the number of incidents in France this year – 183 compared to 164 last year.

Two million animals were tested after slaughter in France this year but only 75 proved positive – an infection rate of 0.04 per cent. This suggests that, despite doomsday predictions in the French press, and the many mistakes made by the authorities, BSE is not about to explode in the French cattle herd.

These are scientific rather than political facts. If the incidence of BSE in France overtakes Britain next year – at however low a level – France will face considerable media and political embarrassment. At the same time, the European Court judgment, though sound legally, fails to take account of an awkward agricultural and political situation in France.

My local butcher in Paris was rejoicing just before Christmas in the newly recovered market for his prime Limousin beef. It used to be quite common, he said, for his customers to order a fine joint of beef for Christmas, instead of a goose or a turkey. Last year he had few beef orders; this year they had returned to almost their normal levels.

I asked him if he would sell British beef again – he once sold prime Scottish Angus beef – if the illegal ban was lifted.

"No, because my customers want to know nothing about British beef," he said.

"Personally I'm sure most British beef is now fine but I have to think as my customers think. Even having it in the shop might make people go elsewhere.The same applies to the country as a whole. If British beef comes in, rightly or wrongly, the whole market for beef in France might collapse again."

Looked at one way, the figures on BSE cases are desperately awkward for France. Looked at another way, they are encouraging. Either way, lifting the embargo – however unjustified it is, scientifically and legally – is not a serious, political option in an election year.