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Thursday, 13 December, 2001, 16:56 GMT
Beef: Will export justice bring rightful rewards?
By BBC News Online's Mike Verdin
Break open the scrumpy if you like, don your finest tweeds, let your plough lie idle.
Certainly Britain's beef farmers at last have something to celebrate - the prospect of a return to what was once their biggest export market, France.
But those expecting rapid results from the ruling that France has acted illegally in banning imports of UK joints and steaks are going to be disappointed.
The bellowing of the likes of the National Farmers Union - "reparation must start today" - belies the complexity and scale of the problems still facing the industry.
Fatted calves are no more likely to head for Paris restaurants now than they were before Thursday's European Court of Justice ruling.
The NFU may say that the losses caused by two-year-old ban have "been heavy for Britain's farming and food industries".
But the union itself admits that those countries which have opened their markets to British beef, since the introduction of measures to control mad cow disease (BSE), have accepted very little.
Official data shows that exports hardly registered on the UK's beef production ledgers, even before this year's foot-and-mouth (FMD) outbreak again left borders closed.
Not since 1995, before the BSE outbreak prompted a worldwide ban on British beef, have farmers enjoyed significant foreign demand.
While there were stories of cross-Channel approaches to "one or two" British exporters before France enforced its ban, the NFU admitted such evidence was largely anecdotal.
"It is all very difficult to quantify," NFU policy director Ian Gardiner told BBC News Online.
Thursday's ruling is more significant, however, in its long-term implications.
"We have to consider it in the context of restarting our export market from a point of zero in the case of beef," Mr Gardiner said.
British beef farmers could, in 1995, count on exporting 15% of production, trade worth some £500m.
France accounted for 80% of those exports.
"It was a hugely important market for us," he said.
Foreign demand was, according to the National Beef Association, sufficient to add 10-15% to beef prices.
The return of such a premium would be a valuable fillip to Britain's last remaining 20,000 large-scale beef farmers, seeking a silver lining to a BSE and FMD-ridden cloud which has brought such poverty and despair.
FMD alone has prompted the slaughter of some 5.5% of the UK herd, to about 10.5 million animals, with beef production falling 9%.
"And there is still going to be some effect next year as beef farmers restock," another NFU source said.
Yet when confidence in British beef does return, there are prospects for a relatively rapid turnaround in export demand.
"Distributors are desperate to get British beef," said Robert Forster, chief executive of the National Beef Association.
"It is the quality of it. It is the beef equivalent of Swiss chocolate. The way we produce it is different to how it is done on the Continent."
While British beef comes typically from cattle bred for the purpose, and fed almost exclusively on grass, Continental farmers rely more on fattening dairy bulls of little use to milk production.
"In the likes of France you get cereal-fed bulls which have a coarse, lighter meat. It is not the same."
Bar further disease scares, Mr Forster sees the export market recovering from early 2003.
"By then I would have expected sufficient confidence to have returned, and for BSE in Britain to have dropped to levels lower than in many other EU states."
The trouble is, European Court of Justice ruling or not, France sees it that way, Mr Forster said.
"You have to wonder whether the French determination to protect their own reasserts itself."
Certainly, France risks European Commission fines if it fails to accept British beef imports.
"But it could open its borders and still keep something up its sleeve," Mr Forster said.
"I am reminded of the 1960s when, after France was forced to accept transistor imports from the East, customs officials decided they needed to check them individually.
"For whole lorry loads, officials would take transistors out of their boxes, one by one, and check if they worked."
The prospect looms of a frosty reception for refrigerated British beef, of queues of lorries once more lining roads routes to the south coast.
Beef farmers around Folkstone and Dover might consider whether they should, rather than banking on improved exports, convert barns into bed and breakfast units, and appeal to stranded truckers.
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