Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) is a disease that affects adult cattle and is commonly known as mad-cow Disease.
BSE attacks the brain and central nervous system of the animal and eventually causes death. It was first reported in cattle in the UK in 1986, but could have existed for longer without being detected. One theory about why BSE developed is that an older prion disease that affects sheep, called scrapie, may have mutated.
The prion was spread through cattle that were fed meat-and-bone mix containing traces of infected brains or spinal cords. The prion then ended up in processed meat products, such as beef burgers, and entered the human food chain. BSE is believed to be the cause of variant Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease, a fatal disease, in humans.
Because of the extent of the disease in cattle in the UK, the EU imposed a strict export ban in March 1996 on British beef and related products.
From 1st August 1999, the ban was amended to allow de-boned beef and beef products from the UK produced under the Date-based Export Scheme (DBES) to be exported. Under the DBES, the UK could export beef and products from cattle born after 1 August 1996, subject to a series of strict and limited conditions. These included requirements that the animal was between 6 and 30 months old, had been clearly traced and identified throughout its lifetime, its mother did not develop BSE, and that beef from cattle older than 9 months was de-boned.
Dispute between the UK and France
The French Government, however, continued to ban the import of beef and beef products from the UK.
In January 2000, the commission brought an action against France before the Court of Justice. In December 2001, the ban was ruled illegal by the European Court of Justice. The judges agreed with commission lawyers that no national law could justify a refusal to apply community law. France’s decision to maintain the embargo sparked a trade row, with British farmers threatening tit-for-tat bans on French goods.
The deadline for France to lift its ban on beef imports from Britain ran out at midnight on Thursday 11 July 2002, and the country faced the threat of fines by the European Commission.
On 25 October 2002 the French Government formally lifted its ban (in order to avoid any fines).
The Commission withdrew its scheduled action in the ECJ on 13 November 2002 asking the Court to impose a penalty of £100,000 per day on France for failure to lift its ban in accordance with an earlier ECJ Judgment. It stated that it was satisfied that compliance with EU law had been achieved.
No fines were imposed and due to the European constitution, were not able to be backdated because they cannot be imposed retrospectively.
The Commission also stated that the action for costs against France would remain live and that following the case the Commission would review the provision under Article 228 of the treaty with a view to ensuring more effective mechanisms for applying sanctions to Member States who failed to obey EU law.
The UK Government regretted the decision by the European Commission not to pursue the case for penalties against France. The UK supported the Commission throughout and believed that pressing this case would have sent a firm message to Member States that no one country can avoid its obligations and responsibilities. Working through EU institutions was the best way to resolve this difficult issue, and it was thanks to the direct action by the Commission and the ECJ that the French Government lifted its illegal ban on British beef.
In 2006, the EU agreed to lift the embargo completely and the UK was allowed to resume exports of all live animals born after 1 August 1996.
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