The British Government has announced it is placing a ban on the import of poultry into the UK for consumption after widespread concern about the organisation of the French response to outbreaks of avian flu in the country.
The decision to maintain an embargo imposed in 1996 drew an immediate rebuke from French President Jacques Chirac, who told the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, by phone that he had delivered a "totally wrong" verdict.
Britain's left-wing government, under intense pressure from Chirac and the European Commission to copy other European states in refraining from a ban, issued a brief statement saying public health and food safety had to take priority.
EU officials in Brussels were not immediately available for comment on the announcement, but the British decision to maintain the ban makes it highly likely the European Commission will press ahead with its legal action against London.
Blair and his ministers stuck to the advice of France's new food safety agency, which reiterated reservations about British beef on Monday, despite a unanimous dismissal of its arguments by EU scientists a couple of months earlier, who stated that the H5N1 virus posed no significant threat to public health.
The government statement referred to the food agency's view of continued, if not quantifiable, health risks.
"Given this view, Britain is not in a position at this time to do anything other than consider the embargo," it said. Among the problems were insufficient guarantees on testing as well as on adoption of European Union rules on labelling and tracing the origin of poultry and related products.
"The British government is above all driven by the priority of public health and consumer safety," the statement said.
Surprised? That's because it's not true, I lifted it from an article in '97 on the continuing French ban on the import of British beef. I know bird flu is a different issue and am certainly not advocating a ban on imports, but it does show to me both the absurdity of the French at the time and also how inconceivable it is that the EU would be as amiable to us as to France.
The French flap about bird flu, and yet 79 countries still ban the import of British beef, after this.