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French fury at US meat ban

Published on 25/02/2004

PARIS, Feb 25 (AFP) - France and the United States were locked in a food fight Wednesday as Washington slapped a suspension on imports of French cold cuts and foie gras after finding fault with French health safety measures.

The ban was announced here late Tuesday, the same day as the European Union said it was halting imports of poulty and eggs from the United States after an outbreak of highly contagious bird-flu in Texas.

A US Department of Agriculture official denied suggestions that the US action was retaliatory and a spokeswoman for the EU commission in Brussels said the timing of the two announcements appeared to be coincidental.

But some EU observers privately suspect that diplomatic factors may indeed have been involved. “Yes, there is very likely a political aspect,” said a European diplomat who asked not to be named.

France challenged the US decision, describing it as “unjustified” but vowing to stay in contact with US authorities in order to get the suspension lifted as quickly as possible.

French meat producers affected by the ban were stunned and outraged by the US move and vowed to seek the intervention of the World Trade Organization or to take reprisals against US exports to France.

French government officials rejected the findings of a visiting team of US veterinary inspectors, who found what the agriculture ministry here called “non-confomities” with US practice in French health protection measures.

But Agriculture Minister Herve Gaymard maintained that there are “100 times more deaths from food poisoning in the United States than in Europe.”He told journalists here that a high-level French delegation had gone to Washington on Monday to confer with US public health officials.

“But the Americans had already made their decision, mass had been said,” he added.

The US move followed a visit to France by a team from the US Department of Agriculture from January 15 to February 5 that included inspections of 11 companies authorized to export food products to the United States and the veterinary services that supervise them.

“In this case we found repeated problems with those plants that are certified to export,” Agriculture Department spokesman Steven Cohen said.

The plants manufacture beef, chicken, pork and duck-based products, he said, without naming the factories.

Cohen also insisted that no link existed with the EU suspension of live poultry and egg imports from the United States.

“This is a process that began, concerns that were documented, beginning in 1992,” Cohen said.

French producers of cold cuts and foie gras reacted with fury to the US suspension.

“The Americans don’t respect the rules of the game,” said Vincent Truelle, co-director of a professional committee of foie gras producers.

“They had already done us great harm by applying, since 1999, 100 percent customs duties on certain French products – such as foie gras – because of the measures taken against (US) hormone-treated beef by the European Union.

“Today, they are wiping out years of work by French producers to conquer the US market.

“It’s not for health reasons that the Americans are closing their borders to our products … The real reasons lie elsewhere.”

Added Robert Volut, head of the federation of cold cut producers: “We are considering filing a case at the World Trade Organization or taking reprisal measures against US products imported by France.”

Sales to the United States account for a only a small percentage of annual earnings by French meat exporters. But the US market, free of constraints, presents an outlet of great potential, exporters say.

France produced 18,000 tonnes of foie gras last year, of which just 20 tonnes of the prepared product – compared with 50 tonnes before 1999 – was exported to the United States. Another 100 tonnes of raw meat parts and products made from foie gras was also shipped.

The leading importer of French foie gras is Spain, with 300 tonnes, followed by Switzerland, Belgium and Japan.

Nearly 90 percent of French foie gras production is consumed in France.


                                                              Subject: France news