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World at One Friday, 20 September, 2002, 14:16 GMT 15:16 UK
French accept beef safety
A traditional English roast dinner
The French may soon be able to enjoy British beef

It is hardly going to transform the prospects for British farmers, but this morning they were offered a small crumb of comfort: the French Food safety agency (AFSSA) decreed that it would be safe to lift the ban on British beef which has been in place for the last six years, and illegally in place for the last three.

Ministers welcomed the news, and said they expected the French Government to confirm without delay that the ban had been lifted, but the impact will be limited even if that happens.

Before the crisis erupted in 1996, France took more than 100,000 tonnes of beef from this country. BSE destroyed our export market in France and everywhere else, and despite all the measures now in place, only a tiny fraction of the market has been restored: exports are running at just 500 tonnes a year.

So the consequences of today's move may be more symbolic than real, with the new French Government moving to tidy up business left unfinished by its predecessor.

As it happens, today's decision comes in the midst of a determined effort by the European Commission to exact penalties from the French Government for failing to open its beef markets to Britain. The EU went to the European Court of Justice in July, calling for the imposition of fines of 100,000 a day until the ban is dropped.

For the National Farmers Union, today marks the beginning of the end of a very long struggle. We caught up with the NFU President Ben Gill at a conference in Estonia, and he told us the ban should never have happend.

It's been a long haul too for the British government, eager to portray themselves as more Euro-friendly than their predecessors, whilst remaining frustrated by the French. The Agriculture minister Elliot Morley this morning welcomed the ruling and explained to The World at One why.

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NFU President Ben Gill
"It's a battle that should never have happened"
Agriculture minister Elliot Morley
"We have complied with all the safety standards"
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