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Shadow Agriculture Secretary, Tim Yeo
"I can't commend someone who tells the House of Commons one thing one day and the Prime Minister the opposite the next"
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Tuesday, 21 November, 2000, 14:12 GMT
Blair 'warned' over French BSE
Beef carcass inspection
Sales of beef have dropped recently
Agriculture Minister Nick Brown has warned that Britons may be eating French beef infected with BSE, according to a newspaper report.

In a letter to Prime Minister Tony Blair, Mr Brown warned that meat from older animals reared in France and other European Union countries could be imported to the UK, said The Times.

He reportedly said there was no way of ensuring it did not find its way to consumers' dinner plates, putting fresh pressure on the government to ban beef imports from across the Channel.

Tony Blair must now act to protect British consumers

Shadow agriculture minister Tim Yeo
But a Downing Street spokesman said the French had pledged not to export any meat which was banned in France (ie beef over 30 months old) and there was no evidence that it was getting through.

On Tuesday agriculture ministers across the EU agreed joint measures to fight the spread of mad cow disease.

The details of the agreement have yet to be released, but are expected to include plans for EU-wide testing for BSE.

France has just banned beef on the bone and suspect animal feed because of renewed fears about the disease.

In his letter, copied to Health Secretary Alan Milburn, Mr Brown is reported to have declared that "diplomatic niceties" should be ignored if there is any risk to consumers.

The Times said Mr Blair has asked Mr Milburn, government scientists and the Food Standards Agency for advice on what action to take on imports of French beef.


The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food declined to comment on the report.

But a Maff spokesman said that food safety was "paramount" and Mr Brown was working with his European counterparts in Brussels to protect consumers and eradicate BSE.

Shadow agriculture minister Tim Yeo said Labour was at last waking up to the truth about French beef.

"Tony Blair must now act to protect British consumers," he said.

The president of the National Farmers' Union, Ben Gill, played down the fears and described Mr Brown's warning as "precautionary".

'Precautionary planning'

After speaking to the agriculture secretary on Tuesday, he said: "It's all about what would happen if somebody tries to abuse the law in the future.

"That's what the minister was trying to do - not ban French beef. It is precautionary planning.

"The French are now following proper procedures. What we need is for the beef market in Europe not to be unduly alarmed and to reassure consumers across Europe, otherwise there will be knock-on effects for the whole industry."

It is illegal to sell British beef from cows aged over 30 months for human consumption in the UK.

Beef on the bone
France has just banned beef on bone

The UK Government said recently there were "no health reasons" to ban imports of French beef.

But it added this would be reviewed if it emerged there were failures in the current controls.

So far this year, French vets have registered at least 100 new cases of BSE, already more than three times the figure for 1999.

Three people are known to have contracted the human form of the virus, new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD). Two of them have subsequently died.

Relatives of the victims are suing the French and British Governments and the European Commission.

They have accused Britain of knowingly exporting possibly contaminated material, and France and the European Commission of failing to take the threat of disease seriously enough.

In the UK, where the BSE epidemic broke out in 1986, more than 80 people have died from vCJD to date. The death toll is expected to rise.

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See also:

19 Nov 00 | Scotland
Scots call for French beef ban
17 Nov 00 | Europe
Italy bans French beef imports
14 Nov 00 | Europe
France acts on BSE
27 Oct 00 | Europe
More suspect beef sold in France
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