23 November 2000
Food Agency under fire over BSE
By Philip Clarke
AGRICULTURE minister Nick Brown has ordered the Food Standards Agency to go to France and check on the safety of French beef.
The minister made the decision with health secretary Alan Milburn amid continuing concern that BSE-infected French beef could be entering Britain.
Mr Brown has already admitted that a legal loophole could allow beef from animals over 30 months old into the country.
But the Food Agency continues to insist that there is no scientific case for banning imports of French beef, saying it poses no greater risk than British meat.
Agency chairman Sir John Krebs asked the French authorities to check the safeguards in place to make sure potentially infected beef cannot reach the UK.
He said: “We have asked for a response within seven days and will consider what future action, if any, may be necessary.”
But Tory agriculture spokesman Tim Yeo described the agency as a “toothless watchdog” which had failed its first real test.
“What it must do immediately is publish the advice it is giving to ministers, so the consumer can judge for him or herself whether French beef is safe to eat.”
Lib-dem agriculture spokesman Colin Breed said Mr Yeos call for a ban showed a disregard for the agency. But he agreed that it should be more open.
Advice “should not be limited to a magic circle of ministers and civil servants. Unnecessary secrecy undermines public confidence,” he said.
The National Farmers Union has also written to the agency seeking reassurance that British controls are adequate and urging it to be more proactive.
Stephen Rossides, NFU head of livestock, said pressure was mounting from farmers for an import ban. But this was not necessarily the best response, he said.
Our grounds would have to be scientifically justified, particularly in view of the case we currently have against France in the French and EU courts,” he said.
“It would be untenable of us to impose an illegal ban.”