Wednesday, September 29, 2004

From Russia with love

A situation is developing in the Russia with the potential to trigger another BSE-type export ban on British farm produce – only this time the problem is Bovine TB.

The first intimation of this impending disaster came on 30 July when an unannounced "customer information note" was posted on the DEFRA website.

This advised that, with effect from 30 September, the Russian Federation had decided to rescind the current agreement bilateral agreement with the EU on mutual recognition of export health certificates. Instead, Russia was to impose its own specific health requirements, with the crucial difference that it would no longer accept milk and milk products from herd unless they were certified as TB-free.

And, as the DEFRA notice blandly announced, "Exports from EU Member States will stop if Russia and the EU cannot agree certification by then".

Despite this information being posted on the DEFRA site, however, it seems not to have been noticed. Nor was a subsequent posting, this one on 6 September, which reaffirmed Russia’s position is that it no longer wished to allow imports of animals and animal products from individual EU member states using bilaterally agreed export health certificates.

The situation, as it stood, was that the Federation would discuss new certification only with the EU Commission, although it did agree to extend the deadline to 1 January 2005.

Only within the last few days, however, did the British diary industry begin to realise the implications of this hitherto obscure news. Is problem is that, owing to the extraordinary neglect of the current Labour administration, Bovine TB has been allowed to rip through the British dairy herd – largely because of a refusal to control the increasingly infected badger population.

Under current bilateral animal health agreements, however, milk from restricted herds is acceptable as long as it has been pasteurised, but this will no longer be the case once the new arrangements come into force. And, because this milk is bulked with other supplies, it will not be possible to certify that either milk or milk products from British farms are sourced from TB free herds, the UK is looking to have its products banned from Russia.

That, however, is the least of our problems. Owing to the wonders of the Single Market, where our products can be exported freely to EU member states, these is a distinct possibility that, because any dairy products from any EU member states might contain British milk, Russia may well ban all EU dairy products unless there is a guarantee that this milk is excluded.

To protect its trade with Russia – which is extremely important to countries like Poland and Germany - therefore, the EU may well be forced into a position of banning the export of any milk or milk products from the UK, unless guarantees can be given that it is source from TB-free herds – a guarantee, under current conditions, that would be difficult if not impossible to give.

At the very least, the growing number of dairy farmers, whose herds are under TB restriction, might find their milk excluded from the wider market, with the risk of a two-tier pricing structure, where they are paid less for their milk.

But, with this product going only to the domestic market, it is only a matter of time before one or other newspaper gets hold of the story and starts asking why, if milk from TB restricted herds is not acceptable to our EU neighbours, why British consumers are "forced" to drink it.

While the Bovine TB saga has, hitherto, been a domestic issue, it is now creeping up the international agenda and now has the potential to precipitate yet another crisis between Britain and the rest of the EU – all courtesy of the Russian Federation and, of course, our own useless government.

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