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Monday, November 23, 1998 Published at 09:01 GMT

World: Europe

Beef exports in March - Fischler

February and March are being talked of for exports to resume

The EU Agriculture Commissioner Franz Fischler has said EU inspectors are ready to give British beef the final all-clear after a vote to lift the worldwide export ban.

Franz Fischler: "We have to restore confidence in British beef"
Farm ministers are expected to approve the ban being removed when they meet in Brussels on Monday afternoon.

But beef cannot be sent abroad until inspectors have checked the UK's measures to eradicate BSE.

Mr Fischler predicted a resumption of exports in March 1999.

"The British Government has to do the next step," he said. "It has to tell us when the inspectors can go to Britain to check abattoirs and the cattle tracing system."

[ image: Franz Fischler expects the ban to be lifted]
Franz Fischler expects the ban to be lifted
The visit will be a formality but Agriculture Minister Nick Brown is anxious for it to be completed speedily if the vote goes through as expected, by a narrow majority.

Europe imposed a worldwide export ban on all British beef in March 1996 after the then Conservative Government announced a suspected link between BSE in cattle and the human equivalent of the disease, CJD.

Monday's vote will not be an absolute majority. Germany, Britain's fiercest critic in the beef crisis, is expected to lead opposition to the move, backed also by France, Spain, Italy and Austria.

Environment Correspondent Margaret Gilmore reports on one of this century's biggest agricultural crises
But eight EU governments are poised to vote to restore the UK beef export trade - the narrowest majority of the 15 member states.

Nick Brown said he was confident the ban would be lifted, having won the support of the majority of Europe's agriculture ministers.

Speaking on the BBC's On The Record programme, Mr Brown said he expected British farmers to be exporting deboned beef by February or March if the ban is lifted and subsequent inspections of British beef are satisfactory.

Once the ban has gone, he will seek to put in place the Date-Based Export Scheme, which only allows the export of de-boned beef and beef products from cows born after 1 August 1996, when potentially BSE-contaminated feed was removed from the food chain.

In addition, cows will have to be between six and 30 months old at slaughter and have been clearly identifiable throughout their lives.

Eleventh-hour lobbying

Just hours before agriculture ministers were due to gather for their crucial meeting, the UK was continuing its efforts to ensure the ban is lifted.

At a dinner in Brussels, Chancellor Gordon Brown attempted to convince his German counterpart Oskar Lafontaine - and through him the German farm minister - that British beef is safe to eat.

David Shukman: There will be a major battle to persuade European consumers that British beef is safe
Should Britain succeed in convincing agriculture ministers to put beef back on the international menu, plans are already in place to blitz the worldwide market with publicity.

The government-backed Meat and Livestock Commission already has tens of thousands of promotional leaflets waiting to be despatched in a bid to persuade foreign customers that British beef is safe.

This would be one of the first steps towards rebuilding Britain's beef industry, which has contributed towards plunging the country's farming into crisis.

[ image: The government identified a link between BSE and CJD in 1996]
The government identified a link between BSE and CJD in 1996
Since this crisis began, British farmers have lost an export market worth an annual £650m, and some of them have gone out of business.

Taxpayers have paid out £4bn to control BSE, and more than 2.5 million cattle have been slaughtered in an attempt to stop the spread of the disease.

The National Farmers Union said it was aware that consumers in certain European countries, particularly Germany and Austria, had not yet been persuaded by their arguments that British beef was BSE-free and safe to eat.

However, the NFU's Tony Paxton added: "We have to fight our way back into the market.

"At least we're in a position to trade. We can develop that market and that's the important thing.

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