Lawyers condemn France's beef ban court hearing refusal to lift curbs on British exports is 'brazen and unjustified', says Brussels

Lawyers condemn France's beef ban
Court hearing refusal to lift curbs on British exports is 'brazen and unjustified', says Brussels

June 20, 2001 Financial Times (London) by Michael Mann

The European Commission, supported by the UK, yesterday fired the opening salvo in its legal battle to force France to end its ban on British beef, imposed over fears of BSE, or mad cow disease.

At a European Court of Justice hearing in Luxembourg, the Commission's lawyers said France's "simple blanket refusal" to respect an EU decision lifting the ban was "brazen and utterly unjustified".

All UK beef exports were banned in 1996 after the British government admitted a probable link between BSE and the human form of the fatal brain-wasting illness, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. When the EU lifted the ban in summer 1999 for meat produced under extremely strict conditions, France maintained its domestic ban, citing claims by its food safety agency that the risk of human infection could not be excluded.

France was traditionally Britain's biggest export market for beef.

The dispute is unlikely to be resolved quickly. The court's advocate-general, Jean Mischo, should issue his advisory ruling before Christmas, and the full court will rule some time after that.

"We sympathise with France over the political difficulties caused by BSE," David Anderson QC, representing Britain, told the court. "But its defence is without legal merit. This is an infringement both grave and manifest."

However, lawyers for the French government told the panel of judges at Europe's highest court that the case was of "crucial importance" for human and animal health throughout the EU, where more than 100 probable or confirmed cases of nvCJD have been recorded.

France argues that the Commission did not allow it time to respond to legal warnings and failed to give its concerns a serious hearing.

Fresh questions have been raised about the reliability of anti-BSE controls with the appearance of a case in Britain in an animal born in 1997, after a ban on feeding meat and bone meal to cattle was fully implemented. The animal's mother showed no signs of BSE, suggesting the disease was not passed on from mother to calf.

* The European Commission pledged yesterday to extend a ban on feeding meat and bone meal to livestock. The decision came after European Union agriculture ministers failed to muster a sufficient majority to either back or reject the proposals.

Germany, France, Spain and Austria voted against the plan to prolong the ban for an unspecified period because they wanted the measures to be permanent. BSE is believed to have been caused by feeding infected meal to cattle.

With no definitive decision either way, the Commission now has the power to continue the ban, which officials said would be open-ended and kept under permanent review. The measures also include a more clearly targeted slaughter policy of at-risk animals and tighter restrictions on beef-based imports into the EU.

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