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Wednesday, 13 March, 2002, 16:03 GMT
Call to fine France over beef ban
Dutch scientists test for BSE.
France still wants "assurances" on British beef
The UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has thrown his weight behind calls to fine France for its ongoing ban on British beef.

Anger is growing over the French government's continued flouting of a court ruling nearly three months ago, but European Commission officials say it will take years to go back to court to seek fines and compensation for UK farmers.

Mr Straw, however, said the commission must take action.

Even if it took time, he said, fines must still be paid.

He added: "The commission has the power to impose fines on France and we would wish to see them do so."

The country's recently-appointed Agriculture Minister, Francois Patriat, said on Tuesday that France still did not have assurances the meat was safe from BSE.

British beef
British beef was banned for three and a half years

Mr Patriat said the government did not plan to address the ban between now and a general election, scheduled for June.

"We are not going to ease up our vigilance of health safety just when the beef market is beginning to pick up," Mr Patriat told journalists.

The European Commission ended a three-and-a-half-year ban on British beef exports in the summer of 1999, imposed because of fears of the presence of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) - or mad cow disease.

But France has continued to block access to imports.

Illegal

The European Union's highest court, the European Court of Justice, ruled in December that France was acting illegally by continuing to ban the meat.

But Mr Patriat said the court ruling was based on "procedural grounds, not on matters of substance".

The commission has powers to seek large daily fines against countries which refuse to comply with the law.

The first step, being considered against France, is the despatch of "reasoned opinion" - a legal letter setting out the commission's complaint.

The French government must reply before a follow-up legal letter is sent.

Lost trade

Only then could the Commission lodge a formal case in the European Court in Luxembourg demanding compliance with the law - and fines and compensation for British farmers for lost trade since December's original ruling.

The problem is that the court will take at least a year to consider the new case.

Consumer Health Commissioner David Byrne, who took the French to court in the first place, is now expected to press for new commission powers to slap fines on member states without having to refer back to the judges.

A recent EU report concluded that disease levels in Britain had to be "seen with a considerable degree of uncertainty" because of the limited extent of testing.

More than 100 people in Britain, France and Ireland have died or are thought to be dying from vCJD - the human form of BSE.

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Conservative agriculture spokesman Peter Ainsworth
"There is no justification for not re-opening the market"

CJD

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