14 June 1996

Live test for BSE – or ban stays

The beef crisis looks set to continue to dominate European business when Ireland takes over the EU presidency in July. Irish farm minister Ivan Yates talks to Tony McDougal about the difficulties that still lie ahead

EU nations are unlikely to accept an early lifting of the ban on British beef until the UK either introduces a live test for BSE or develops a commercial post-mortem test for all beef animals, according to Irish farm minister Ivan Yates.

Although the European Comm-ission has relaxed the ban on beef derivatives (semen, tallow and gelatine), the continuation of the UKs policy of non-co-operation in Brussels is seen as perverse and unlikely to help Britains interests.

Mr Yates told junior farm minister Tony Baldry during a whistle-stop visit to Dublin last week that there was a growing feeling in the Community that the policy of non-co-operation was becoming increasingly counter-productive and could lead to recriminations from other members.

In an exclusive interview with farmers weekly, Mr Yates said he supported the easing of the ban but warned that a timetable to lift various components, such as the Third Country, embryo and calf ban might not be achievable.

Mr Yates promised that Ireland would follow scientific recommendations from commission and World Health Organisation scientists and would not seek to politicise the issue. Indeed, despite the massive political manoeuvres within John Majors government over the BSE-crisis, Mr Yates believes the main issue to overcome will be the lack of consumer confidence across Europe. "If there was a similar problem with cattle in Spain or Denmark, the same ban would have been implemented," he stressed.

There is still widespread concern in Europe over the effects of the UKs legislation to stop the use of mammalian meat entering the livestock food chain, particularly in the light of the large numbers of BSE cases born after the 1988 feed ban was introduced.

And comments made by Prof Southwood, who chaired the 1989 government committee responsible for the feed ban, that he could not rule out maternal/dam vertical links, had not helped Britains credibility in the EU.

"Countries such as Spain and Italy, whose beef markets have collapsed by 30-40%, yet have not had a single indigenous case, are not satisfied with the situation."

Mr Yates said full traceability was a key element in restoring consumer confidence, adding that he would be looking for a relaxation of the ban for Northern Ireland producers, who operate a full traceability scheme and have had fewer cases of BSE.

He admitted the Irish beef market – which is the most export dependent in Europe – had been badly shaken by the BSE-crisis. Valued at £600m a year, Irish beef exports have been affected across the world but most particularly in its two largest markets – Britain and Continental Europe.

"Traditionally, one-third of exports have gone to Britain and a further third to Continental Europe, but these exports, worth £510m, have fallen by a half since the crisis."

The commissions 650m ecu (£557m) compensation package has been dismissed by Mr Yates, who wants to see this increased to 1bn ecu (£856m). At present, Ireland is set to receive £58m, though the minister is under pressure from the Irish Farmers Association to have this raised substantially.

Winter beef finishers and heavy heifer producers, who have been hardest hit because they do not qualify for EU subsidies, will be the first to receive compensation.

Full traceability is a key element in restoring consumer confidence, says Irish Farm Minister, Ivan Yates.