France moved one step closer to lifting its ban on British beef, after the AFSSA food safety agency said that the safety of meat guaranteed in France would not be endangered by a decision to end the six-year ban.

The embargo on British beef was put in place by all EU nations in March 1996 amid fears that bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) would spread to the rest of Europe if left un-checked. BSE, commonly know as mad cow disease, has been linked to the fatal human variant Creutzfeldt Jacob Disease (vCJD), which has killed more than one hundred people in Britain so far.

In August 1999, the EU lifted the ban, ruling that new safety measures imposed in Britain meant that British beef was considered to be safe, but France refused to comply. The refusal sparked diplomatic rows between Britain and France and demands by British farmers and certain elements of the media for some kind of trade retaliation against France.

The European Court of Justice condemned France for failing to end the restrictions, which it declared were illegal. In July the European Commission applied to the European Court of Justice for a fine of about €160,000 a day (US$157,000) to be imposed on France for ignoring its ruling that the ban was illegal. A ruling on the fine is not expected for several months.

The French government had said it would not lift the ban until the AFSSA thought it was safe to do so, but it now says it needs to consult with other public groups. Meat industry and consumer groups will be consulted by Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin. Facing the prospect of the fine for each day that the ban continues, the Prime Minister has given agriculture, trade and health ministries ten days to provide their opinions on the matter, and a final decision will be made once all relevant parties have been consulted.

Before the ban was imposed, Britain exported £520m (US$806m) of beef, now beef exports are very few. If the French ban is lifted, only a small amount of beef will be exported to France. However, British farmers and export agencies will feel vindicated because the French ban was thought to have a negative effect on consumer confidence worldwide.

“At the moment we would welcome the decision. It’s a very good decision in our favour,” a spokeswoman for Britain’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), told Agence-France Presse.

DEFRA maintains that the ban is illegal and hopes the French government will end it soon.