France dismisses court ruling

September 21, 2001 The Scotsman by Fordyce Maxwell
A EUROPEAN court judge said yesterday that France's unilateral ban on British beef, maintained because of BSE fears, is in breach of European Union law.

But the "opinion" of Jean Mischo, advocate general of the European Court of Justice, was dismissed by Jean Glavany, France's farm minister, who insisted: "I have not changed my opinion. Today there is no reason for France to lift the ban."

A ban on British beef exports was imposed in March 1996 when the cattle brain disease BSE, which had affected hundreds of thousands of cattle in the UK, was linked to the fatal human condition Creutzfeldt Jakob disease. A massive increase in hygiene and safety rules and a ban on the use of cattle over thirty months old for human consumption - BSE only appears in older cattle - led to the export ban being lifted from 1 August 1999.

But Germany and France, said to be relying on advice from its Food Safety Agency, refused to comply. France is still resisting, in spite of the irony that by next year there are expected to be more cases of BSE in cattle in France than there are in the UK, where the disease has been almost eradicated.

Mischo's opinion, published yesterday, was that France could not refuse to implement the European Commission decision to lift the ban or "take refuge" behind the views of its own Food Safety Agency in opposition to advice from the EU scientific body, the Scientific Steering Committee of veterinary experts.

There was therefore no ground on which France could challenge the legality of the Commission's decision, he said.

However, France was entitled to block British beef if it arrived via another country, since that amounted to a break in the "traceability process" which only covers the meat up to the point where it leaves the UK.

His opinion will now be considered by the full court before a final verdict is taken later this year or early next, but in more than 80 per cent of cases the court goes with the advocate general's advice.

Jim Walker, president of NFU Scotland, said: "Blatant protectionism and hypocrisy from France continues to damage a British beef industry which is now world leader on the safety and traceability of beef.

"They have flouted commission rules and made a mockery of the single market."

He pointed out that France has also recently taken unilateral action on sheep imports with rules which "go way beyond European Commission requirements and will ultimately mean an illegal ban on lamb imports to France".

Before the beef export ban, France was Britain's largest export market, taking more than GBP 300m of British beef each year.

Unfortunately, Mischo's opinion will cause little excitement for farmers or the meat trade because the export market is likely to remain closed for many more months because of foot-and-mouth.

As the number of cases of BSE in the UK continues to decline, fears about the extent of the disease in other countries is on the increase.

Germany recently identified its 100th BSE case this year, France had recorded 97 by the end of June, compared with 162 for the whole of last year; and the first case in Japan was reported last week.

In Europe, true totals could be hidden because in other member states the whole herd is slaughtered if one animal is found with BSE. Experience from the UK suggests that herds very rarely have just a single case.

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