John Krebs, chairman of the UK Food Standards Agency, has revealed the latest high-profile plan to allay the fears of British consumers over the safety of beef imports from France and to prove that the agency is not a slave to political expediency, following claims that it is more lenient towards safety checks on French beef than on domestic meat.

This Sunday (26 November) a team of officials from the Agency will visit France for a number of days to conduct safety checks and investigate whether the current legislation on the exportation of French beef is adequate to prevent the spread of BSE.

The French government, also keen to reinvigorate consumer and political confidence, has welcomed the visit, which coincides with a policy of increasing spot-checks at the border to ensure cattle safety and traceability. It has already been made clear that companies failing to exercise “due diligence” in matters of beef safety are liable for unlimited fines or prison sentences.

The predominant concern in importer-countries is that meat banned for domestic consumption is still leaving France. In Britain, reports have circulated that the laws to prevent the import of beef from cows over the age of 30 months old are being circumvented by processors and packagers. Even Krebs admitted: “We have made it clear in our review that the over-30 month rules are difficult to police on imports, especially on beef products. The FSA is keen to stress that it “is looking at how UK rules might be made tougher, while ministers are pressing the EU to tighten rules on the labelling of country of origin.”

There are concerns, however, that the British BSE focus is resting too heavily on the French. The official enquiry into the disease published last month discovered that it was imported from Britain in the first place, and while nearly 1,150 cases have been confirmed in Britain this year, the French have uncovered only 100. Furthermore, the human variant of BSE, vCJD, is thought to have killed three French this year, while 85 UK consumers died from the disease.

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