Blair presses French to lift ban on beef

December 15, 2001 The Herald (Glasgow) by Michael Settle And Brian Donnelly
TONY Blair last night confronted his French counterpart in a bid to put pressure on Lionel Jospin's government to lift its two-year ban on British beef following the EU court's ruling that it is illegal.

Barely 36 hours after the European Court of Justice announced its verdict, the prime minister was also thought to be keen to raise the key issue of compensation for British farmers, which could run into millions of pounds.

Mr Blair's official spokesman told reporters: "I'm sure that when the prime minister speaks to President Chirac and Prime Minister Jospin he will want to raise this and will want to say that as we now have the ruling from the European court, as a good European partner we hope that France will abide by it."

He quickly added: ''We recognise they are taking a little time to look at the decision. That's normally what we would do after these things." It was pointed out that the National Farmers' Union had a court action pending in the European courts and that issues of compensation were strictly up to the individual groups concerned.

However, it is clear Mr Blair's message will be for the French now to do the honourable thing.

"We believe our beef is among the finest in the world," said the prime minister's spokesman.

Mr Blair's pressure came after it became clear French compliance with the court ruling was not assured.

Jean Glavany, France's farm minister, insisted his government would make sure it protected French consumers in its response to the court ruling.

"The decision we are going to take will only be based on the precautionary principle, which has always been our guiding principle. In other words, we will take our decision in view of the necessary protection of French consumers," said Mr Glavany.

He claimed the lack of information about British beef made it difficult to gauge just how safe it really was.

"The information we have on the (BSE) epidemic in Britain is dispatched only sparingly," he said.

Mr Glavany noted that of the 15 EU member states only Britain was not systematically performing BSE tests on cattle aged over 30 months before they entered the food chain.

"Everybody does it apart from Britain, so we know little about the state of the epidemic in Britain," he added.

The EU banned British beef exports in 1996 after BSE was linked to its human form Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. To date, it has killed around 100 people, mostly in the UK but also in France.

After Britain acted to control BSE, the European Commission lifted the ban in 1999. However, France refused to comply and the commission sued it to force it to do so.

Thursday's ruling by the Luxembourg-based court puts new pressure on Paris to drop its unilateral ban or face hefty fines.

Meanwhile, the panel of the only Scottish inquiry into the impact of the foot -and-mouth outbreak heard evidence from the Scottish Executive and vets involved in the crisis when it met for the first time in Edinburgh yesterday.

Chaired by professor Ian Cunningham, CBE, the inquiry committee is expected to hear from people across Scotland who were affected by the crisis over the next six months.

The independent inquiry, set up by the Royal Society of Edinburgh, will look at how the crisis affected veterinary health, medicine, farming, economics, tourism, the consumer, and the general public, and what lessons can be learned.

The Scottish inquiry is separate from the three investigations to be held south of the border. Farmers are among those who have consistently called for a full public inquiry into the outbreak.

The first shipment of Scottish venison bound for Europe following foot-and -mouth has left a leading processor, Ross Finnie, rural development minister, said yesterday.

The move, with Highland Game of Dundee resuming exports, comes after restrictions imposed following the outbreak of the disease closed the continental market. The standing veterinary committee in Brussels agreed to the resumption of wild venison exports from Scotland last month.

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