26 July 2002

AFSSA: French beef arrogance

By Philip Clarke

Europe editor

FRANCE has been accused of double standards following the discovery of widespread breaches in its specified risk material (SRM) controls in cattle while, at the same time, it bans British beef on alleged health grounds.

A new study from the food standards agency, AFSSA, reveals that around 11% of carcasses sampled in September and October last year were contaminated with spinal cord, rising to over 16% in abattoirs with a throughput of less than 5000t a year.

The AFSSA inspectors also found other SRMs, with 20% of carcasses containing thymus glands and 9% with tonsils still intact.

"The arrogance of the French in continuing to ban British beef on completely spurious grounds while at the same time failing to ensure its own beef meets health standards is appalling," said NFU president, Ben Gill. "This level of hypocrisy is staggering even by French standards. They must drop their ban on British beef."

But, according to AFSSA director, Martin Hirsch, French standards are already much improved, following the introduction of new technology earlier this year to suck the spinal cord out, rather than cutting.

The level of contamination was also variable. In 56% of cases, the amount of spinal cord was less than 5cm, while in 1.9% it was 15-20cm long.

Mr Hirsch also points out that the presence of spinal cord would only be a risk if the animal had BSE and had not been picked up by routine testing. AFSSA estimates that just one diseased animal a year slips through as a "false negative", greatly limiting the significance of the report.

"The pertinent information is that, in 90% of cases, there is no residual spinal cord, and that in just two cases out of 1000, there is up to 20cm," he says.

The report follows last weeks decision by the EU Commission to apply to the European court for fines of over £100,000 a day for Frances continued ban on British beef.

At best this will take several months to achieve, and the fines may not be backdated. And if France decides to lift its embargo before the court decides on a level of fines, the case will be dropped and the French will go unpunished. &#42

France has continued to ban British beef since August 1999, when other member states re-opened their borders. A court ruling in December 2000, confirming its action was illegal, has been ignored.