Mad Cow Fears Ease - France
Lifts Ban On British Beef

(AFP) -- France lifted its ban on British beef, imposed six years ago because of fears about the spread of mad cow disease, bringing to a close a bitter cross-channel dispute.
The decision brought France into line with the rest of the European Union, which removed its embargo on British beef in 1999, and followed a ruling from the country's food safety agency AFSSA that the meat no longer poses a threat.
However officials said there was little chance of a major inrush of British beef into France, which before the ban was Britain's biggest export market.
Enduring consumer anxieties in Europe about the dangers of mad cow disease -- bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) -- combined with tough controls on the British herd mean that only a tiny amount of British beef is currently being sent abroad.
France imposed the ban on British beef in March 1996 along with the rest of the 15-nation EU, after scientists established a link between BSE -- then epidemic in British cattle -- and the fatal brain-wasting disease in humans, new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD).
The EU lifted the ban in August 1999 after Britain introduced new safety measures, but Paris maintained its embargo, saying it was not convinced that British beef was safe.
Britain pursued France through the European Court of Justice, which last December ruled that Paris was in breach of EU law, and the decision to lift the ban removed the prospect of non-compliance fines worth 158,250 euros (155,000 dollars) a day.
British Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett welcomed France's decision Wednesday. "I am very pleased for British farming that this issue is being resolved. It has been a completely unwarranted shadow hanging over our beef industry for more than three years," she said.
Jon Bullock, spokesman for Britain's Meat and Livestock Commission (MLC), said: "The ban sent out all the wrong messages about British beef and we are happy it has been lifted," Bullock added.
Announcing the ban's removal -- which becomes effective after a decree is published in France's official gazette -- the government of Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin also unveiled two new measures intended to reassure French public opinion about the safety of eating beef.
Ticketing rules which already oblige butchers and supermarkets to mark the national origin of their beef will be extended to school canteens, restaurants and other public eating-places.
And Agriculture Minister Herve Gaymard is to press the European Commission in Brussels to order BSE tests on beef cattle aged 24 months across the EU. Currently only France, Germany, Italy and Spain test at 24 months, and other countries at 30 months.
In Brussels, European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection David Byrne welcomed the French decision, saying it "validated" EU scientific opinion which had ruled the meat safe three years ago.
In its ruling on September 20, AFSSA noted that the incidence of BSE had diminished sharply in Britain, and there was now only a "very weak residual risk (of contamination)... Evidence suggests that the current system can be relaxed without jeopardising the security of French consumers."
According to Britain's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, there were 1,000 cases of BSE detected in cattle last year, compared to more than 35,000 when the disease was at its peak in 1992. France -- where BSE appeared in 1991 -- has officially registered 707 cases.
More than 100 people have died of vCJD in Britain, and five in France.
To combat the disease Britain introduced a ban on meat and bone meal -- believed to be BSE's carrier -- and a selective culling programme. In addition no animal aged over 30 months is allowed to enter the food chain. Nearly five million animals have been slaughtered.
Before the ban France took in 30 percent of British beef exports. In 1995 it imported 80,000 tons with a value of 179 million pounds (285 million euros), according to the French office of the MLC. Today Britain imports French beef.
"Today British beef is the creme de la creme. It comes only from young steers and heifers fed on grass. Our difficulty is that our production has suffered so much that we are now too expensive for the European market," said the MLC's French representative Remi Fourrier.
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