Court of Justice condemns French ban on British beef

The European Court of Justice ruled that France’s refusal to lift the ban on direct imports of British beef is unlawful. The Court nevertheless acknowledged that “certain difficulties in applying Community decisions were the result of unclear legislation” and stressed the importance of a reliable tracing system.

In January 2000, the Commission brought an action before the Court of Justice because the France had failed to apply the Commission’s decision of 23 July 1999 to lift the ban of imports of beef, veal and derived products from the UK to the other Member States as of 1 August 1999.

The Commission argued that:

  • a Community decision was binding and Member States could therefore not “shelter behind doubts or problems of interpretation” in order not to apply those decisions;
  • the ban could not be justified since the products concerned are covered by an exhaustive system to protect human and animal health (the Date-Based Export Scheme, or DBES).

The French government based its justification on:

  • the “lack of reliability” of the DBES
  • the absence of Community harmonisation concerning labelling and traceability in the Member States of beef and veal products of UK origin
  • the “inadequate” programmes of detection tests

The Court concluded that France’s arguments were pertinent in so far as they concern incorrectly marked products (UK products cut, processed or rewrapped in another Member State for subsequent export to France without a distinct mark capable of identifying them). However, the Court found that France failed to fulfil its obligations by also refusing to permit the marketing in its territory of correctly labelled products subject.

A protocol of understanding was concluded between the UK, France and the Commission in November 1999, ensuring that products directly dispatched to France could be made subject to specific identification. All Member States were to take binding measures to ensure that UK meat products were labelled and that the marking was retained after cutting, processing or rewrapping on their territory. According to the Court, products dispatched directly to France have been traceable since the protocol of understanding and France thus failed to fulfil its obligations from 30 December 1999, the deadline set by the Commission.

 

Commissionner for Health and Consumer Protection David Byrne welcomed the European Court of Justice's decision. "The decision vindicates the Commission's policies and stance," he said, "I expect France to implement the judgment and lift the ban on the import of British beef."

The leader of the UK's National Farmers' Union, Ben Gill, said France's unilateral ban led to heavy losses for British farmers and demanded "punitive fines" if it failed to end the ban.

French Minister of agriculture Jean Glavany said he needed time to study the ruling with Prime Minister Lionel Jospin before making a decision.

 

On 27 March 1996, the European Commission ordered a worldwide ban on British beef, after the discovery of BSE. The ban was lifted after three years, in August 1999, but France decided to maintain it - thereby breaking European law. France said its own national Food Safety Agency was not convinced about the safety of British beef.

The ban turned into major trade row, with some UK officials advocating blockades against French goods. In September 2001, the Advocate General of the European Court of Justice ruled that the French ban on direct imports of British beef was illegal. However, the Advocate General did not judge the ban on indirect imports of British beef to be contrary to the law.

 

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