Back to website

Muckspreader 5 October 2004


            Remember the great ‘beef war’ of the late 1990s, when we discovered to our surprise that our EU partners had the power not only to shut their own borders to beef and beef products from Britain, but to prohibit us from selling them anywhere in the world? Thanks to the EU’s ban, we weren’t even allowed to export glue to India or wine gums to the Falklands. Now it could all be about to happen again, except that this time the cause of the ‘war’ will be milk and dairy products, from cheese to chocolate bars.


This complex story began in July, when Russia announced that it would no longer import milk and milk products unless they came from herds certified as TB-free. No particular worries there for Britain since, unlike Germany and Poland, our dairy exports to Russia are tiny.  But the next step came in September when Russia announced that it would no longer import animals or animal products on the basis of bilateral agreements with individual EU member states. It would in future treat the EU as a single country, all agreements having to be negotiated through Brussels. And herein lies the problem.


As is now familiar, TB is ripping through Britain’s cattle herds at record levels, largely thanks to Defra’s refusal to cull our exploding, TB-infested badger population. But there is no bar on selling milk from TB-restricted herds, so long as it is pasteurised. It is then ‘bulked up’ with milk from TB-free farms, so that no one can tell the difference. Since under the rules of the ‘single market’, however, there is then no bar on selling that milk and products made from it anywhere in the EU, the Russians have no guarantee that, if they import those products, they may not contain milk from herds which have not been certified TB-free. So, as from January 1, the new rules lay down that all imports from the EU must be prohibited, hurting the Poles and the Germans rather badly.


Their only defence is to ask Big Brother in Brussels to insist that, unless Britain bans the sale of milk from TB-affected farms, it will have to prohibit any further exports from Britain, not only into the rest of the ‘single market’ but anywhere. The natural desire of the Poles and the Germans to continue their lucrative trade with Russia thus leaves Britain with the awkward choice that it must either forbid any sales of milk from infected herds (at huge cost to the taxpayers) or face a total export ban (at huge cost to the farmers and the wider economy). A half way house would be to allow milk from infected herds still to be sold on the home market, but separated from the rest and at a much lower price. But this would immediately provoke an outcry from those asking why, if the milk is viewed as dangerous by other countries, British consumers are still allowed to drink it.


At the moment it is not clear how Defra will jump. All that is certain is that this was exactly the kind of mess it was going to land in when it decided to take the cowards’ way out by not eliminating the chief cause of the epidemic with a mass-cull of infected badgers.  But what a nice little Cadbury’s Milk Tray to land on the desk of the EU’s new trade commissioner, Peter Mandelson, one of whose first tasks could be to impose a ban on British exports worth hundreds of millions of pounds a year.