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Britain can't sell its beef even after ban is ended

March 11, 2002 The Times (London) by Valerie Elliott
EIGHT weeks after the European Union lifted its export ban on British meat products imposed during the foot-and-mouth outbreak, Brussels regulations have ensured that not one beef consignment has left the country.

Meat companies are so frustrated with the strict rules covering British beef exports that they have decided to withdraw from the market. Ministers are lobbying David Byrne, the EU Food Safety Commissioner, to relax the controls. The collapse in the trade is particularly embarrassing for the Government. Two years ago Tony Blair appointed beef envoys in embassies throughout the world to win new orders for British beef.

The outcome has been disappointing, however, and the two meat companies licensed for export by the European Commission, St Merryn Meat Company, in Cornwall, and Scot Beef, of Bridge of Allan, Stirling, have decided that the export trade is not worthwhile.

The continued refusal of France to accept British beef has also depressed business. Even though the European Court of Justice found the French Government's position to be in breach of EU law nearly three months ago, Brussels has failed to seek any penalties against France.

The beef export trade was worth more than Pounds 500 million a year to the British economy until 1996, when the Government announced a link between BSE and its human equivalent, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

The EU allowed British beef exports to resume to Europe in August 1999, but the rules of the Date Based Export Scheme have proved too onerous for operators. Under the controls a meat company must dedicate a whole plant to the export trade.

Even before the foot-and-mouth outbreak, orders were slow and the business was not deemed to be profitable.

Margaret Beckett, Rural Affairs Secretary, has now formally asked the European Commission to allow abattoirs to nominate certain days for export business, instead of having to give a full-time commitment. If this concession is achieved, she believes that as many as six other companies might be prepared to enter the beef export market.

Meat buyers from The Netherlands, Belgium, Spain and Italy have expressed interest in placing orders for meat, but the impasse means there is no supply.

Lord Whitty, Food and Farming Minister, who was in Barcelona last week at an international food fair, was buoyed by the mood of buyers and believes that a change in regulations could boost the trade.

Peter Hardwick, international manager of the Meat and Livestock Commission, hoped that a decision would be made soon by the EU's standing veterinary committee, although it would have to be approved by EU ministers.

"If only we could get the beef slaughtered for export in the UK, we could soon sell it in Europe," he said. "We are having difficulties, however, with countries outside the EU. We want to regain markets in South Africa, the Middle East and Japan. Our real problem now is that we are having to start from scratch."

Abattoirs must comply with strict rules in order to be eligible for the Date Based Export Scheme.

Each plant has to be inspected by EU vets before it is licensed to operate the scheme. Each cow to be slaughtered for export must have a valid passport proving its identity and age. All cattle must be under 30 months old. The mother of each animal must also have survived six months after the animal's birth.

Meat must be deboned, vacuum-packed and sealed, with each seal given a serial number monitored by a vet.

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