EU raps France in protectionist cheese row

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The European Commission accused France Wednesday of ignoring scientific advice in trade moves to protect prized goat and sheep cheesemakers.

"The European Commission has asked France to withdraw national measures obstructing trade in milk and milk products obtained from sheep and goats," the executive arm for the EU single market of half a billion consumers said in a statement.

"The request takes the form of a 'reasoned opinion' under EU infringement procedures," it spelled out, warning that "in the absence of a satisfactory response within two months, the commission may decide to refer France to the European Court of Justice."

The argument centres on the presence of scrapie, an incurable disease known to farmers for centuries that affects the nervous system of sheep and goats and is their equivalent of "mad cow disease."

Precautionary measures in were originally introduced during the crisis over BSE in British cattle, but the commission now says dairy products from infected animals do not transmit the illness to humans.

"Even though some uncertainties persist," it says, "scientific evidence produced and evaluated in the aftermath of the BSE crisis shows that the agent causing the disease will not provoke food borne disease in humans."

However, a French government spokesman in Brussels said France is contesting the lifting of EU measures through the courts, underlining: "If we use the milk of an infected goat or a sheep, or feed bits to chickens, we can't be sure that there is no risk to human health."

Long known as a nation of cheese-lovers, France produces more than 1,000 varieties and jealously guards its reputation.

© 2010 AFP

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