16 January 1998

EUthumbs-up

for Ulster beef

export by Easter

ULSTERS beef producers hope to resume worldwide beef exports by Easter, following the EU commissioners decision on Wednesday to endorse proposals to relax the ban for certified herds.

Trevor Lockhart, spokesman for the Ulster Farmers Union, immediately welcomed the move, which should benefit all but about 1700 of Northern Irelands 30,000 cattle herds. It was a significant step forward. But, he added, there was still some way to go.

The proposal, which would allow exports of de-boned beef from cattle aged between 6-30 months from herds certified as free from BSE for eight years, must now go before the EU commissions standing veterinary committee. Comprising the government chief vets from each member state, the committee is likely to make its decision later this month. The proposal could still have to go before the next meeting of EU farm ministers in early Feb before final approval is secured.

"Even then we will still have to undergo another EU inspection before a date for the resumption of exports is announced. So, realistically, I think we are looking at Easter," Mr Lockhart said.

Farm minister Jack Cunningham welcomed the commissioners decision as a "significant step forward in regaining access to international markets for British beef." It was also a boost to hopes of securing further relaxation of the ban in the year ahead.

But George Lyon, acting president of the Scottish NFU, said any partial lifting of the ban which favoured Northern Ireland would do Scotland no favours.

"We would still be locked out of European markets, through no fault of our own, and we would have to watch while Northern Ireland beef takes our traditional European markets.

"It could be many months, if not years, before we have a computerised record system up and running which will satisfy the demands of our European competitors. That is why we must have progress on a date-based lifting of the export ban," he insisted.

NFU president Sir David Naish welcomed the commissioners move as the first step in the right direction and one that provided the industry with a much-needed glimmer of hope. But the complete lifting of the ban still had to be the top priority.

The union was determined to ensure that the date-based export scheme proposal, also being considered in Brussels, should be progressed as a matter of urgency.