By Philip Clarke, Europe editor

BEEF markets received a fillip this week with news that Russia, Europes number one buyer in recent years, is lifting its blanket ban on EU product, imposed in the wake of the foot-and-mouth crisis.

Trade will only resume with member states that have not had the disease. But at least Russia is now accepting the principle of regionalisation, EU farm commissioner, Franz Fischler, told journalists in Luxembourg this week.

There had already been some market improvement in recent weeks, he told the monthly farm council, helped in part by the removal of over 110,000t in the UK as a result of foot-and-mouth destructions.

With young bulls at 71% of intervention, and with steers at 83%, prices had reached an “acceptable level”, he said.

Cows, however, remained depressed, with values still 23% down on the pre-BSE crisis levels of last November.

The main reason for the improvement was the impact of various buy-up schemes.

Over 190,000t had been taken into public intervention, while the “purchase for destruction” scheme had removed some 482,000 animals, equivalent to 160,000t of beef.

Furthermore, foot-and-mouth slaughter programmes had seen another 110,000t of beef go up in smoke in the UK.

On the demand side consumption was estimated at 18% below November 2000 levels, compared with 23% down in March and 25% down in February.

But Mr Fischler warned that the better figures could just reflect an increase in Easter demand.

He also pointed to the 94% loss of exports, (before Russias return to the market), and warned that the 350,000t annual intervention ceiling would soon be hit.

Meanwhile, the first tender under the EUs “special purchase scheme” for over-30-month animals saw just 205t of beef taken from the market.

Prices were only low enough in two countries – Austria and the Netherlands – to trigger the scheme, and the latter was unable to participate due to foot-and-mouth.