After a six-year dispute, the French government finally lifted its import ban on British beef yesterday [Wednesday].

Since 1 August 1999 British beef can be exported under the so-called DBES system (date-based export scheme), which sets strict conditions (for example only deboned meat of bovines between 6-30 months of age complying with very detailed requirements and originating in dedicated meat plants).

However, the French government had steadfastly refused to accept British beef on the grounds that it could be contaminated with BSE, and was hauled before the European Court of Justice. A couple of weeks ago the French food safety standards agency AFSSA published a report stating that beef from Great Britain posed "a negligible" risk of causing the human form of BSE, variant Creutzfeldt Jakob Disease.

France said yesterday it wanted all EU member states to conduct BSE tests on cattle aged more than 24 months, the practice in France, Germany, Italy and Spain. Other countries test only animals over 30 months.

Until the EU ban in 1996 France had been Britain's biggest export market for beef. While this situation is unlikely to be restored in the short term, the government's decision will be a source of huge relief for British beef exporters, many of whom believe the French ban had more to do with a wish to protect domestic business interests than with genuine concern about the safety of British beef.

David Byrne, EU Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection, commented yesterday on the decision of the French government to lift the embargo on British beef: "I welcome the decision of the French government to lift the ban. I am glad that the validity of the EU scientific opinion has been vindicated."