Brussels - The European Commission on Thursday said it would ask its scientific advisers to review the safety of in-bone beef following a British ban on sales over fears that bone marrow could harbor "mad cow" disease.
Britain's Farm Minister Jack Cunningham on Wednesday decided to ban sales of in-bone beef following scientific evidence showing a small risk of BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) in nerve tissue, called dorsal root ganglia, near the spinal cord.
The Commission said EU scientific opinion on the safety of cattle spinal columns could be expected as early as next week, but until now there had been no examination of bone marrow.
"That has not yet been looked at but we will put it to the various scientific committees," Gerry Kiely, spokesman for EU Farm Commissioner Franz Fischler, told journalists.
Speaking during a visit to Paris, Fischler said he had requested the scientific documentation from Britain and would "see whether there was any reason to draw consequences for countries other than Britain."
The Commission played down the impact of the latest scare, saying it would not affect progress on easing the 21-month-old worldwide ban on U.K. exports.
"There is no link -- the latest British proposal (to ease the ban) refers to beef which is BSE free, so it should have no bearing on progress," Kiely said.
The new sales restriction prompted an angry reaction from Britain's farmers, who called it a body blow to an industry left reeling from the export ban imposed by the EU in March 1996 over fears of a link between BSE and its human equivalent CJD (Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease).
German Health Minister Horst Seehofer said Wednesday's U.K. news "certainly" made any agreement on easing the ban more difficult.
Speaking to journalists during a meeting of EU health ministers in Brussels, he welcomed the swift action by the British government but said Germany could not currently approve any easing of controls.
"At the present time there is no way we can agree to the relaxation of the ban. The disease needs to be eradicated," he said.
But European Commission officials said the latest proposal from London concerning a resumption of exports -- the so-called Certified Herds Scheme -- applied only to some cattle in Northern Ireland and was already limited to deboned beef.
It also said Britain had acted within EU rules in putting the extra safeguards in place as long as the deboning process took place in Britain. Legal problems could arise if the U.K. obliged third country exporters to debone beef prior to shipment.
"Member states are allowed to take extra precautionary measures," Kiely said.
The European Commission's request for advice on cattle spinal columns was linked to it possibly extending its list of so-called Specified Risk Material (SRM), rendered animal parts which are the subject of a planned EU ban from next year.
The Commission on Wednesday made its latest proposal on the SRM ban due to start on January 1, 1998. After further scientific evidence is put forward next week, a final decision will be made.
The proposal calls for the removal at source of the brain, spinal cord and eyes from cattle, sheep and goats over one year in age, and the spleen of sheep or goats of any age.
EU sources said it was possible that the list of SRMs could be extended to include spinal columns, but a full Europe-wide ban on bone marrow and consequently on the sale of in-bone beef was unlikely.
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