France lifts ban on British beef after six-year dispute

October 3, 2002 The Guardian (London) by Jon Henley
The French government finally lifted its ban on British beef yesterday, ending a dispute that has soured relations between Paris and London for six years and saw France dragged before the European court of justice.

The decision came less than a fortnight after the French food safety standards agency, AFSSA, produced a report concluding that British beef imports posed "a negligible risk" of causing the human form of mad cow disease, variant Creutzfeldt Jakob Disease.

"Given these facts, the prime minister has decided to lift the embargo," the recently elected centre-right government said in a brief statement. The French agriculture minister, Herve Gaymard, said the necessary legislation would be passed "in the next few days". The environment secretary, Margaret Beckett, said she was pleased the issue was being resolved. "It has been a completely unwarranted shadow hanging over our beef industry for more than three years."

The European Union lifted the export ban on British beef in mid-1999, more than three years after it was imposed during the epidemic of mad cow disease, or BSE, that swept through the UK cattle herd.

France resisted lifting its ban, arguing that its scientific experts believed the beef still carried health risks. It continued to defy a ruling by the European court of justice that the ban was illegal and faced hefty fines of up to pounds 100,000 a day if it persisted.

David Byrne, the European health commissioner, said the decision meant "the validity of the EU scientific opinion has been vindicated". Ben Gill, president of the National Farmers' Union, said the European commission must take action to safeguard against another breach of its rulings.

"It is unacceptable that such a clearly illegal ban has been able to be imposed for this length of time," Mr Gill said. "It is equally unacceptable that the French can walk away from this disgraceful situation at the last possible moment before fines are imposed."

France said yesterday it wanted all EU member states to conduct BSE tests on cattle aged more than 24 months, the practice in France, Germany, Italy and Spain. Other countries test only animals over 30 months.

Until the EU ban in 1996 France had been Britain's biggest export market for beef.

Asked how he thought French consumers might respond to British beef's reappearance on the market, Mr Gaymard said: "We will have to see what happens. As far as I'm concerned, I'll have no problem eating it."

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