27 March 1998

Brit beef back in world

business by Christmas

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By Philip Clarke

Europe Editor

BRITISH beef could be back on international markets by Christmas, farming leaders believe.

Their optimism followed the announcement from EU farm commissioner, Franz Fischler, on Tuesday that he would present the date-based export scheme, already cleared by his scientific advisers, to a full meeting of European commissioners "within a couple of weeks".

Mr Fischler told a 40-strong delegation of NFU and Scottish NFU members in Brussels that British farmers had done everything that was asked of them. It was now up to the commission to take things forward.

The proposal, allowing exports of beef from animals born after Aug 1, 1996, would go to commissioners, who would pass it immediately to the Standing Veterinary Committee for approval. If that was not forthcoming, it would then go to EU farm ministers, who could lift the ban by a simple eight to seven majority.

"You have my full support that I will do my best to bring these things forward as fast as I can," said Mr Fischler. "From my side, there wont be any delay."

NFU president, Ben Gill, said he was greatly encouraged by the progress. "At the very latest we want this matter settled by the autumn." And George Lyon, Scottish NFU president, said he hoped exports could resume by the end of the year.

The importance of lifting the ban was pressed home by many of the delegates who told how BSE had affected their businesses.

Bill Bolton, who farms near Burton-on-Trent, Staffs, described how his pedigree beef and embryo export business had been devastated by the two-year crisis. He had suffered a 40% drop in income in the first year and just about broke even. But last year his income was down 72% and he had to sell his seed stock. "We now only have four breeding animals left and my business will go to the wall. I am not overstating it."

Rosie Dunn, a first generation tenant running an 80-head bull beef enterprise at Stockton-on-the-Forest, York, also predicted she would go out of farming within 12 months unless there was a rapid lifting of the export ban. "We need your help now. Please give us a date," she said.

But when the farmers met eight Euro-MPs, they were left in no doubt about the political pitfalls that lie ahead in getting the date-based scheme approved.

"We are moved by your stories and I would love to tell you your beef ban will be lifted tomorrow. But that will not happen. The Italians, the Germans and others will not allow it," said German MEP Dagmar Roth-Behrendt.

There was still a real lack of consumer confidence, she said. Recent media reports, claiming that 47,000 BSE cohorts had gone missing and that UK farmers were burying BSE casualties, had reinforced the fears.

The MEPs also attached great importance to having a central computerised tracking system in place.

But Mr Gill explained that the so-called "missing" cohorts were ones which farmers had already disposed of in the over 30-month scheme as they tried to crack on with rebuilding the national herds reputation. And while a computer system would be operational by the autumn, it was not a requirement of the date-based scheme, which would use cattle passports.

After the meetings, Mr Lyon said commission officials would now come to Britain to study the BSE controls. "We hope they will accept that a paper-based system is sufficient to verify the birth dates of animals and then rapid progress can be made," he said.

NFUpresident Ben Gill acts as tour guide for the Brussels trip.

The 40-strong delegation departed from Brussels with good news.

British farmers had done everything that was asked of them, EUfarms commissioner Franz Fischler told the delegation on Tuesday.