26 November 1999

Nod for British label in France

By Philip Clarke

BEEF exported under the date-based scheme will be labelled as "British" when it eventually goes on sale in French supermarkets, under the terms of an agreement reached between Paris, London and Brussels this week.

The so-called "protocol of understanding", which is being studied by the French food standards agency, (AFSSA), outlines several "clarifications" which it is hoped will enable France to lift its import ban.

Farm minister, Nick Brown, is adamant that the accord contains nothing new. "No changes have been made to the date-based export scheme. No extra burdens have been put on British beef exporters."

But Brussels observers believe the process of getting the trade going again has been made more difficult. "Some areas are now more prescriptive," says Helene Judge from the Meat and Livestock Commission.

For example, on labelling, the commission has cleared the way for France, and any other country importing UK beef, to label it as British at the point of sale. This is possible, so long as the mark also refers to the date-based export scheme and not just the country of origin.

"This is not a change in the law, but it does smack of political ballet," said Ms Judge.

The move has been attacked by shadow farm minister, Tim Yeo. "I very much regret that a further concession has now been made. I am extremely concerned that, instead of promoting British meat on the Continent, the labelling may attach a stigma to our product."

But farmer organisations are not so sure. "Obtuse French politicians will no doubt claim the labelling requirement as a victory, but that could only be the case if UK beef was a poor product," said chairman of the National Beef Association, Robert Robinson. "We maintain the opposite, because we are proud of what Britain produces."

The NBA believes that Continental customers will be glad to see grass-fed British steer and heifer beef on their shelves again.

But labelling is not the only issue. While France is now satisfied with the traceability and controls provided in the UK, the commission is to carry out on-the-spot checks of farms and abattoirs every four months and, as an additional measure, will invite experts from other member states to join them.

The protocol also calls for a surveillance project to monitor the effectiveness of the UKs feed ban. This will take the form of a comprehensive testing programme, targeted at over 30-month cattle born after Aug 1, 1996. MAFF points out that this is work it was planning anyway, and adds that the commission is soon to do an EU-wide testing.

AFSSA has to give its approval before the French government will pass the necessary legislation to lift the ban. French agriculture minister, Jean Glavany, has indicated that this could take another two weeks.