30 May 1997

Labour says No totrade war over BSE controls

LABOUR will not launch a trade war with European nations over their failure to match stringent UK BSE controls on meat and bonemeal and specified bovine offals.

Despite intense lobbying by farm organisations fed up with lower quality beef imports driving down prices, junior farm minister, Jeff Rooker, told MPs such action would not help lift the beef ban.

Latest figures from the Meat and Livestock Commission show that beef imports during the first two months of the year totalled 19,770t – 47% more than the same period last year.

EU imports totalled 12,700t, of which 7900t had come from the Irish Republic, 2400t from the Netherlands and 1100t from Germany. The remaining 7000t came from non-EU nations, predominantly from Uruguay, Argentina and Australia.

Speaking during a BSE adjournment debate brought by Lib Dem MP Malcolm Bruce (Gordon), Mr Rooker said real progress would only be made once EU consumers felt confident eating British beef.

Mr Rooker said the UKs challenge of the legality of the EU beef ban would be heard in the European Court of Justice on Jul 2. And he said the government would adopt a more positive approach to the European Parliaments temporary BSE committee of inquiry.

Mr Rooker said the government was committed to rebuilding bridges in Europe and completing the Florence Agreement. "We shall continue to give more impetus to the selective cull. We shall move rapidly to create a computerised cattle tracking system," he said.

With beef finishers only obtaining prices last seen in 1982, Mr Bruce said many were selling cattle for less than the price at which they were bought.

"That is clearly unsustainable. If the situation continues for much longer, it will bode ill for the autumn cattle sales and the future of hill farmers, who depend on them for their very existence."

Mr Bruce called on the Ministry of Defence to stop importing South American beef and urged government to launch a labelling scheme to enable consumers to know the origin of beef.

And he also told government to press for a dispensation for UK beef producers, who could not meet the 360kg intervention cut-off mark because they traditionally produced heavier stock.