British beef ban ending EU votes to allow export 2 1/2 years after 'mad cow' uproar

Alarm devastated industry

November 24, 1998|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON -- British beef, anyone?

That culinary question may soon be heard in restaurants and butcher shops worldwide as European Union farm ministers voted yesterday to end the international ban on British beef exports imposed 2 1/2 years ago in the wake of the "mad cow" disease crisis.

While the first helpings of British roasts and steaks won't hit international tables until early next year, the news that boned beef may soon be exported was greeted with relief by a local industry that has seen its reputation plummet and its finances crippled.

Bob Parry, president of the National Farmers' Union of Wales, said the decision was "just the first step along a very long road to recovery.

"We are under no illusions about the scale of the task before us," he said. "We face an enormous challenge to convince consumers in Europe and further afield to put British beef back on the dinner plates of the world."

In Brussels, Belgium, 10 of the EU's 15 farm ministers agreed to lift the ban and pave the way for the European Commission to formally set a date to allow British beef exports. Germany voted against lifting the ban, while Austria, France, Luxembourg and Spain abstained. Some scientists who followed the crisis said lifting the ban was premature.

"Consumer protection must take priority. If absolute security cannot be guaranteed, we must vote against," German Agriculture Minister Karl-Heinz Funke said.

The British must still heed tough regulations and the country's slaughterhouses will have to pass stiff EU inspections over the next few months. Exports will be limited to boned beef and beef products from animals between 6 months and 30 months old and born after Aug. 1, 1996. Export beef will have to be certifiable that it is free of BSE -- bovine spongiform encephalopathy.

BSE is a cattle disease that wreaked havoc. It has been linked to 30 deaths -- 29 in Britain and one in France -- cost the British beef industry $6 billion, and helped topple Britain's longtime Conservative government.

First identified in 1986, the disease quietly devastated the beef industry even as British government ministers maintained that there was nothing wrong with the country's meat supply.

In March 1996, Britain's Tory government announced that BSE might be linked with a new variant of CJD -- Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease -- that afflicts humans. That announcement sent a shock wave through Europe.

In Britain, meat sales collapsed overnight. Agriculture ministers in the EU quickly imposed the worldwide ban.

Instead of shouldering the blame for the debacle, the British government, under then-Prime Minister John Major, battled the Europeans every step of the way in a long, fruitless campaign. In the end, the British were forced to accept the beef ban. And the Tory government, already shaky after years in power, fell to Labor in the 1997 election.

It has been a long road back to respectability for British beef. Millions of potentially infected cattle were slaughtered. A computer database was established to track each animal. Meat processing regulations were toughened.

But it will likely take years for Britain's beef industry to reclaim lost markets, especially since the European market is flooded with meat.

"Getting beef sales back to where they were will take time and further effort and the government will now work to ensure we can implement the scheme as quickly as possible and rebuild confidence in British beef," Prime Minister Tony Blair said.

The campaign to win back the stomachs of diners worldwide is to begin with the distribution of a leaflet titled, "British Beef Returns."

Pub Date: 11/24/98

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