CLAIMS that the EU authorised a top-level disinformation campaign about mad cow disease in 1990 to prevent the beef market collapsing have been backed by a former Brussels bureaucrat. Brussels was forced on the defensive yesterday after Gilbert Castille, an ex-employee of its consumer affairs service, was quoted in the French newspaper Liberation, corroborating the allegation. The claims, which first surfaced last week when a memo written by Mr Castille in 1990 was leaked to the French press, are severely embarrassing to the EU.
It has taken the moral high ground over BSE since imposing the world ban on British beef in March. The new evidence came on a particularly unfortunate day for Franz Fischler, the Agriculture Commissioner, who demanded reassurances yesterday from Douglas Hogg, Agriculture Minister, that the ban was being enforced fully.
Mr Fischler sent a letter to him following complaints from the German ambassador in Rome that British beef was still getting to Italy via Ireland and France. Mr Castille's remarks to Liberation suggest that the EU and its vets had ordered a disinformation offensive to stop the press "exaggerating" the BSE problem and destabilising the market.
Summarising a submission by an EU colleague in the committee meeting six years ago, Mr Castille's memo said that "the BSE affair should be minimised by practising disinformation". The memo also stated that the British Government was going to be told "not to publish any more results of their research" into BSE. Mr Castille, who was tracked down by Liberation in the South of France, told the newspaper: "I am not blaming the person who declared that [the representative of the Commission]. The person who said that did so because he felt he had to."
He said the EU vets who attended the meeting said nothing. "They must have had instructions." The EU said last night the memo was a "one-off" account of one meeting which in no way reflected policy at any stage.
One senior source close to Mr Fischler said: "This is absurd. This memo was written by somebody of little importance who couldn't find anything better to do with his time. "It was not circulated to anyone of any importance. People sit in on these meetings all the time if they have nothing better to do."
A spokesman said it would also investigate reports that Germany's ambassador in Italy had complained that British beef was being illegally transported into EU countries by a "meat mafia" via France and Ireland. A diplomatic cable from the ambassador addressed complaints from European farmers, alleging that live cattle from Britain were being exported with forged health certificates.
VITAL documents that could shed light on an alleged plot by Brussels bureaucrats to cover up "mad cow disease" are missing from the European commission's files, it emerged this weekend.
A former official has admitted drafting a memo to his superiors after a meeting of the EU's veterinary committee, at which he claims plans were put forward to minimise the BSE scare by using disinformation.
However, the commission, which denies the plans were ever acted upon, says it no longer has the memo or the official minutes of the meeting held in Brussels six years ago. L'affaire de la vache folle, as it is known in Brussels, is causing the European Union acute embarrassment at a time when it is under criticism for failing to lift its controversial ban on British beef.
Yesterday another legal bid to lift the ban, the second in 24 hours, faltered when the European Court of Justice threw out an application by the National Farmers Union for its immediate suspension.
The affair will deepen this week when Franz Fischler, the agricultural commissioner, and Emma Bonino, the commissioner responsible for consumer rights, are summoned to the European parliament to answer questions about the memo and related matters. Klaus Hansch, president of the parliament, has said he wants a "more complete explanation" about allegations that officials tried to suppress reports about the disease.
The memo, dated October 12, 1990, was written by Gilbert Castille, a senior French civil servant with the commission's consumer protection agency, who retired a month after the meeting. In the note, copied to Peter Prendergast, the Irish head of the agency, and two other officials, Castille described how an unnamed commission representative had told the committee, comprising veterinary officers from the member states: "We have to have a cold attitude so as not to provoke unfavourable reactions on the market. We will not speak about BSE. This matter will not appear on any agenda . . . We will officially ask the UK not to publish the results of their research."
The memo concludes: "On the general plan, this BSE affair must be minimised using disinformation. It is better to say that the press have a tendency to exaggerate."
Last week The Sunday Times traced Castille to his home in the lush cattle country of the French Limousin. He said it was a mystery that the minutes had disappeared. He added: "It is astonishing that the huge bureaucratic machine at Brussels suddenly loses documents relating to this incident. Everything is written down five times in five languages."
The commission, while ordering an investigation into the affair, has been quick to distance itself from Castille. A spokesman said: "We do not have a copy of this memorandum or the minutes. The memo has no place in the politics of the EU. It is not an official document, but an information note showing the personal opinions of the writer."
Castille, however, insists the memo was an accurate record of the meeting he attended. The commission said this weekend that the contents of the memo were totally at odds with the policy it had pursued.
GERMANY set itself on a collision course with Brussels yesterday by extending indefinitely a national ban on the import of all British beef and its by-products although the EU has already begun to ease the embargo.
Bonn's apparent readiness to defy the EU is certain to stoke passions in Britain when the European Court of Justice rules tomorrow on Britain's request for an emergency suspension of the overall ban. Britain is thought unlikely to win this or two other cases before the court, on pensioners' bus passes and the protection of birds.
Responding to the intense public fear over Britain's BSE crisis, the German Cabinet renewed a ban imposed in March and due to expire on September 29. It also made clear that it has no intention of excepting bull semen, which was cleared for export by EU officials last month. Exports of gelatine and tallow, two other by-products, have also been approved once Britain conforms to new requirements.
The German Agriculture Ministry said that Bonn had no plans to follow the Brussels order to start to lift the ban on the by-products. A spokesman for Franz Fischler, the EU Farm Commissioner, said that Germany was expected to obey EU decisions easing the ban. "If they don't, they are clearly in breach of the law," he said.
Germany's near-panic over "mad cow" disease reached new intensity this week with reports, as yet unconfirmed, that British beef was being smuggled onto the Continent via Italy. The German action embarrassed the Brussels Commission, which could be obliged to take Bonn to the European court if it maintains an import ban no longer supported by the EU. "They have to obey the rules like anyone else," an official said.
All EU states imposed bans when the BSE crisis started in March, but they are expected to fall into line with the decisions on easing the embargo. Germany's apparent willingness to flout EU decisions will add to pressure from some Conservative ministers and Euro-sceptics for defiance of rulings from the Luxembourg court that are deemed to interfere with Britain's sovereignty.
The most controversial case involves a likely court decision in September that will require Britain to enforce a maximum 48-hour working week. However, the three cases over the next few days are certain to sharpen Conservative anger. Tomorrow the judges are thought likely to uphold at least most of the EU beef ban for the time being, although some experts believe that they might challenge the EU's pow ers to block exports to third countries.
Britain last month applied for an interim order halting the ban while the court reviewed the substance of its double-pronged claim that the EU action was illegal and inflicted disproportionate suffering on the British beef industry. The final decision will not come until next year, well after the Government hopes to have freed more beef products for export under the procedure agreed at the Florence EU summit last month.
The court said the EU had been justified in intervening over British beef because of scientific findings linking BSE to Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), the human equivalent. The judges said they acknowledged the economic and social difficulties caused by the ban, but rejected Britain's case, citing "the paramount importance to be accorded to the protection of health".
There were still too many uncertainties over the link between BSE and CJD, the judges said. They noted that death invariably followed the diagnosis of CJD within months. "Since the most likely explanation of this fatal disease is exposure to BSE there can be no hesitation. The ban has a legitimate aim ‚ the protection of health ‚ and, as a containment measure prior to eradication of [BSE], it was essential to the achievement of that aim," it said. The court, which was composed of 12 judges sitting under its Spanish president, acknowledged that some of Britain's arguments merited closer analysis, but there would be too great a risk in suspending the ban while these were considered.
The court said the statement in March from SEAC, the Government's advisory Committee on BSE, on new evidence suggesting a link between BSE and CJD had changed the situation over the need to protect consumers. "There is nothing to suggest that the Commission acted, as the United Kingdom claims, solely for economic reasons in order to stabilise the beef and veal market," the court concluded.
The Luxembourg judges will rule today on a separate application, by the National Farmers Union, for a suspension of the ban. Yesterday's ruling makes rejection a foregone conclusion. The NFU said yesterday it was disappointed by the court's decision but vowed to press ahead with its own case. "We believe the European Commission misused its powers contrary to the Treaty of Rome and acted disproportionately in imposing the ban", the NFU said.
Colin Maclean, director-general of the Meat and Livestock Commission, the government quango charged with the promotion of British meat, said: "The court's decision is particularly discouraging as we already have customers in third countries willing to resume trade in British beef as soon as the ban is lifted."
Tory MPs may reignite the internal warfare over BSE by voting against the selective cull of up to 80,000 cattle, Douglas Hogg, the Agriculture Minister, was told at a meeting of backbenchers last night. Critics of the cull, of cattle born between 1988 and 1993 in herds where there had already been evidence of BSE, spoke at a meeting of the Tory backbench agriculture committee.
The regulations to approve the cull, which was part of the Government's framework document at the Florence summit, will have to be ratified by the Commons. One MP who was at the meeting said: "A number of us may write to the Chief Whip to warn him we may vote against it." Tory MPs are pressing Mr Hogg to agree compensation that would be more favourable to farmers.