20 February 1998

Angry farmers clash after TV show shut-out

DOZENS of frustrated farmers clashed with police in central London last Sunday as farm minister Jack Cunningham left the studios of London Weekend Television.

About 70 demonstrators leapt in front of Dr Cunninghams car and banged on the windows as it drove away after his appearance on the Jonathan Dimbleby programme. Police battled with the farmers to let the car get away in a mass brawl which saw one man arrested.

The farmers claimed their businesses were being ruined by cheap imports of substandard foreign meat. And they wanted to know why new rules requiring country of origin labelling on beef, due to take effect in the UK from Apr 1, will be voluntary rather than mandatory. Compulsory labelling does not take effect across the EU until the end of the century.

Many of the protesters had travelled from hill farms in Wales and the West Country, hoping to question Dr Cunningham on live television. But tickets for the programme had already been allocated and most were refused entry.

"Its just what we call the dignitaries who are in there asking questions," said Richard Haddock, Devon NFU vice-chairman. "Cunningham wont even talk to grassroots farmers."

John Foulkes, a beef farmer from Wales, said many producers faced ruin unless cheap beef imports, not produced to the same standards, were kept out of the country. "Imported beef has a substantially higher health risk than British beef. We want the same rules for the rest of Europe that we have in the UK."

A MAFF official said Dr Cunningham was powerless to introduce either a mandatory labelling scheme or ban foreign imports because doing so would be against EU free market rules.

Johann Tasker