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French ban on UK beef imports
On 16 November, the European Commission decided to initiate formal legal proceedings against France for not lifting the embargo on British beef. The Commission considered that France had not fulfilled its obligations under Commission Decisions 98/256/EC and 99/514/EC relating to lifting the embargo. As the first step in the formal "infringement proceedings", David Byrne, Health and Consumer Protection Commissioner, asked the French Government to submit its position within two weeks of the formal notification. If the Commission does not get a satisfactory response in that timescale it may decide to send France a "reasoned opinion" requesting the alleged violation to be brought to an end. The Commission, nevertheless, remains confident that a negotiated settlement can still be reached.
The move comes after France informed the European Commission on 1 October that it would not comply with the Community Decision to lift the embargo on British beef on the basis of advice it had received from its National Food Agency (AFSAA).
The scientific evidence brought forward by France was re-evaluated by the Scientific Steering Committee (SSC) of the EU, on whose scientific risk assessment the provisions foreseen in the UK Date Based Export Scheme were based. The SSC concluded unanimously on 29 October that there was no need to change their previous opinions on the safety of British beef.
A meeting on 2 November between Commissioner Byrne, French Agriculture and Fisheries Minister Jean Glavany; and British Agriculture, Fisheries and Food Minister Nick Brown, concluded on the need for further technical clarifications on points like traceability, tests, controls, processed meats and labelling. Several meetings between experts on a technical level helped to clarify outstanding questions.
At a second meeting between Messrs Byrne, Brown and Glavany, in Brussels, 15 November, it was felt that a solution was close and could be reached in a matter of days.
Commenting on the Commission's decision to open legal proceedings against France, David Byrne, said:
While I am opening formal proceedings against France, I remain hopeful that an agreement can still be reached over the coming days, between Britain and France, that will be mutually satisfactory and respect Community law. I will continue to work with both Member States in a constructive manner to reach such a solution. This would represent what I have been trying to achieve all along, a negotiated settlement to this dispute. I hope we can still reach agreement and avoid a lengthy and damaging legal battle.
In the light of the decision concerning France, the Commission also remains concerned at the lack of action by Germany to lift its embargo on the importation of British beef. The Commission is, therefore, asking the German authorities for an indication of when the embargo is going to be lifted.
Subsequently, on 23 November, discussions between the European Commission, the UK and France, resulted in a document which will allow the French Government to review its decision not to lift the ban on UK beef. The Commission's document has been referred to France's food safety advisory body, AFSSA, by the French Government.
Commenting on this news, Mr Brown, said:
The French Government asked for, and was given, more information and assurances about measures being carried out to ensure the safety of British beef. These measures were set out in the Date Based Export Scheme (DBES). This scheme was set up by the European Commission. The UK met the requirements of the DBES and this led to the EU ban on British beef exports being lifted on 1 August this year. The clarification of measures that the UK was carrying forward under the DBES has addressed French concerns. No changes have been made to the Scheme. No extra burdens have been put on British beef exporters. This progress results from the constructive and professional approach to the issue taken by the politicians and officials of the three parties involved, the European Commission, the French and the UK. The UK and the Commission believe that these clarifications and assurances should enable France to join the other EU member states who have already accepted the provisions of the DBES and lifted their ban on British beef.
The document covers five areas of concern which the French raised earlier in November. It forms the basis on which the French government are re-consulting their food standards agency, AFSSA, about implementing the DBES. The document is the result of a series of discussions. The French received full and detailed explanations of the actions which we have taken, and plan, in the UK. On controls and traceability of products within the UK, the Commission has reported that the clarifications the UK provided satisfied the questions raised by France.
As to the traceability of animals, the UK provided information on the action planned for confirmed cases of BSE born in 1996. There are no such cases at present. Because of the 30-month rule, animals born before May 1997, cannot now go into the food chain. However, it is proposed to carry out a full veterinary investigation in relation to any case born after 1 January 1996, to see if there are other animals which might also have been exposed to infection. Those animals will be traced as part of an intensified surveillance programme.
On testing, the UK has provided full information on the proposed future development of testing in the UK. In particular it confirmed plans for testing a sample of animals taken from the over 30-months scheme but born after the feed ban became effective. A meeting with the Commission to take the project forward is imminent. If they are content it will be put into effect immediately, although it will take some time to set up and obtain results. Completion of this programme is not a precondition for the French lifting the ban.
The understanding also records the UK's support, and the support of the French Government, for Commission plans for an EU-wide testing programme.
Clear labelling is and always has been a condition of the DBES. The Commission has already seen the UK rules and agreed that they fully comply with the EU decision. It has now made a declaration which clarifies the labelling requirements which apply in other countries. It has stated that importing member states should, when repackaging DBES beef, apply marks or labels which will ensure that the products can be identified and traced. This will enable them to require the labelling on their own territory of British beef, if they so wish.
The UK government believes that it has reached this point without placing further burdens on UK exporters, or re-opening the DBES decision. Those were key objectives for the UK. At the same time, it believes that it has discussed fully all the concerns raised by France and provided some important information and assurances which they have welcomed.