THE safety of British beef by-products was thrown into question again yesterday when the European Commission reported scientific doubts about the conditions under which Britain is to be allowed to resume exports after a hard-fought agreement last month.
Franz Fischler, the Agriculture Commissioner, reported that "the whole issue of gelatine" was to be re-examined today by a new multi-disciplinary committee which was created to handle the BSE emergency. He was addressing the European Parliament after MEPs expressed their anger over the disclosure of an old Commission memo that reported an alleged decision to stifle news of the epidemic.
Although gelatine and tallow, the two main by-products, are not yet back on the export market, the fresh doubts about their safety are a blow to Britain because the decision to lift the ban on them was deemed a breakthrough in the campaign to end the whole embargo. Britain launched its non-cooperation campaign when EU officials initially refused to lift the ban, claiming that the by-products could be infected. Germany and other European states have continued to insist on the possible risks from the by-products despite the easing of the ban, taken after a narrow majority supported the action.
Officials said a scientific committee had found evidence to suggest that gelatine could still carry the infective agent for BSE when treated at the temperatures imposed in the deal with Britain. Other methods might have to be sought to neutralise the agent, they said.
"The issue is partly academic because there is no sign that the manufacturers of gelatine in Britain are close to meeting the standards we set in June," a Commission spokesman said. "But it is now possible that we will have to increase those standards before allow ing exports to resume." The latest worry over the by-products is certain to bolster Germany's refusal to ease any aspect of the beef embargo. Bonn is heading for a collision with the Commission and Britain over its continuing blanket ban.
Continuing passions over the beef affair were on display in the Strasbourg Parliament yesterday as Jacques Santer, President of the Commission, struggled to quell the indignation of MEPs over the 1990 note in which a Brussels official reported an alleged decision to play down BSE disease through "disinformation".
Mr Santer reported that his inquiry had shown that the note, which was disclosed in France last month, gave a false account of a veterinary committee meeting in October 1990. Its author, Gilbert Castille, an official who has now retired, had been reflecting a personal bias in a low-level report on the meeting, Mr Santer said. Other officials at the meeting had denied the truth of his account, he added.
Styling themselves the guardians of the European consumer, MEPs from every main group accused the Commission of sins ranging from incompetence to deliberate obfuscation because it had failed to lead an adequate campaign against BSE. The far-right French National Front likened the Commission to "one of history's great poisoners of humanity". The "mad cow" epidemic was the consequence of the lust for unrestricted free trade, one MEP said.
Several parties called for an official inquiry. The dominant Socialist group said the note was "the quintessence of everything that the public finds wrong with the Commission." Graham Watson, a British Liberal Democrat MEP, said: "The cover-up of this issue has been the UK's Chernobyl."
THE ROW with Europe over the ban on beef derivatives threatened to blow up again yesterday after a warning by Brussels that even tougher hygiene standards may be demanded for the manufacture of gelatin.
European Commission officials said yesterday that production standards agreed last month as the basis for lifting the ban on gelatin exports may have to be tightened again after a new study called for the temperature requirements to be reconsidered [for adequacy in making beef-derived gelatin non-infectious].
The commission's committee of scientists and vets will meet in Brussels today to discuss the research findings. Any move to tighten the rules further is likely to lead to accusations from Government ministers that the commission and member states are going back on their word.
THE European Court of Justice is expected to make an interim judgment today on Britain's complaint that the EU export ban on British beef is illegal, writes David Brown, Agriculture Editor.
Government lawyers are optimistic that the preliminary judgment will allow the removal of the ban on exports of beef and beef products to about 70 non-EU countries. Britain exported 191,000 tons of beef a year, worth 457 million pounds, to EU countries before the beef crisis broke in March. Export to non-EU countries totalled only 55,000 tons, worth 63 million pounds. [Thus 28% by weight or 13% by dollar value went to non-EU countries.]