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French may lift ban if British beef is labelled

THE EUROPEAN Commission hopes to resolve the Anglo-French beef crisis "this week", it said last night. A voluntary labelling scheme for British beef could lead to France lifting its ban and allay consumer fears in Germany.

A crunch meeting today between the European commissioner for health, David Byrne, and the British and French agriculture ministers will provide the first opportunity to judge the French reaction to Friday's ruling on the safety of British beef.

France is under mounting pressure to lift its ban, but the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Nick Brown, said he is willing to look at a labelling scheme, and at allowing French inspectors to visit British abattoirs, provided the embargo is removed.

Because Friday's scientific verdict was unanimous Mr Brown travels to Brussels today with a strong hand, and commission officials are unsure whether he will allow Paris to retreat gracefully.

Last night a spokeswoman for Mr Byrne said he "is very optimistic that a quick and rapid solution can be found. He is hoping for a result this week."

Under the rules of the European single market, it is illegal for France to demand beef from another country to be labelled so that consumers can identify it as non-French. The UK could, however, enter into such an arrangement voluntarily.

Commission officials are privately anxious about the position in Germany - the only other EU country still to bar British beef. Up to seven German federal regions are now threatening to vote for a continuing boycott of British beef imports, complicating the task of winning agreement in the Bundesrat. The government in Berlin is committed to winning legislation to remove the embargo, but "the Germans have been hiding behind the French", said one source.

Although the full European Commission will discuss the matter tomorrow, that is thought too soon to decide on the next course of action - in particular whether legal proceedings against France should be initiated if it does notremove its ban.

Brussels is allowing Paris a breathing space but is sensitive to fears that the French will try to play for time.

Signs of opposition to the removal of the ban in Germany may encourage those in Paris who still want to hold out.

A voluntary labelling regime would not apply to existing British beef exports, because these are very limited and are directed at hotels and restaurants rather than supermarkets. But it might hamper long-term prospects of winning back a substantial slice of the lucrative French market.

The commission is bringing forward the labelling proposal anyway. It would require products to be identified from 2001.