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Friday, 12 July, 2002, 16:48 GMT 17:48 UK
China attacks Europe over honey ban
Bee
China says the honey ban makes the poor poorer

A leading Chinese agriculture official has launched a bitter attack on the European Union for imposing a ban on Chinese food imports.

The Chinese authorities say it has led to trade losses totalling several billion pounds and is causing widespread hardship in rural areas that depend on overseas companies buying their produce.

The environment here is so clean my bees don't get sick and so don't need medicines

Chinese beekeeper

EU inspectors recommended the ban because they were so concerned about the routine use of antibiotics and hormone growth promoters in Chinese food production - and because of the lack of regulation governing the trade in veterinary medicines.

From Europe's point of view, the biggest impact of the ban, imposed earlier this year, has been on stocks of honey.

Chinese blends were widely used in the brands most commonly on sale.

Fit for emperors

I was given unprecedented access to Chinese food producers, who have sent an urgent plea to the European Union to restore trade, and I was escorted by officials to the eastern Shandong Province.

The slopes of sacred Mount Tai, a place of retreat and pilgrimage for China's emperors, is dotted with beehives.

The sound of crickets competes with the honey bees.

Until the ban, the highly fragrant honey collected here was destined for the European Union.

It used to be a product deemed fit for the emperors. But now, with the detection of illegal drugs in Chinese honey, it is not fit even for the European Union.

Its reputation is ruined - its purity in doubt.

Unfair ban

I was taken to meet a beekeeper whose livelihood depends on supplying the big honey exporters.

He said he could not understand why he was being penalised.

"This ban's totally unfair, " he said.

"The environment here is so clean my bees don't get sick and so don't need medicines.

"If these European inspectors found antibiotics, then it's nothing to do with my honey."

Yet, on any High Street, chemical pesticides and veterinary drugs are freely available.

Anyone can buy antibiotics such as Chloramphenicol, banned for use in food in Europe because it is potentially harmful to human health.

Traces of it and other illegal medicines were found by EU inspectors not just in Chinese honey - but in poultry, shrimps and rabbit meat.

Lost trade

Chinese officials took me to a rabbit breeding centre that used to supply three thousand tonnes of meat to Europe.

Now it has had to lay off two thirds of its staff and stop its expansion plans.

The government has now banned some twenty of the drugs that were routinely used

Beijing Ministry of Agriculture official

Anxious to show no illegal drugs are used here, the owner, Luo Dong, told me he was furious with the European Commission, accusing its inspectors of acting purely to protect Europe's own markets.

He said: "China's so keen to conform to world trade regulations yet now, because of a few industry rogues, well-run companies like mine are being punished by an over zealous ban."

The overriding message to the EU is that the ban is making the poor even poorer.

The Chinese government says it has led to billions of pounds of lost trade.

Drug ban stays

The top official at the ministry of agriculture in Beijing has condemned the ban as hasty and irresponsible.

But he acknowledged that there were flaws in the system: "The government has now banned some twenty of the drugs that were routinely used and has stripped hundreds more of their licences.

We have also sent out more than 22,000 teams of inspectors across China to monitor the food production methods of those who supply exporters."

In the meantime, European inspectors say they are not convinced.

They have said that until honey and other foods are drug free the ban will stay.

But the Chinese government said this was just a fraction of the total losses - because in the wake of the EU action, other trading blocks had followed suit with their own bans - including North America and Canada.

See also:

05 Jul 02 | N Ireland
13 Mar 02 | UK
19 Feb 02 | Health
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