The European Commission is to apply for emergency legal measures to force France to lift its ban on British beef immediately, food safety commissioner David Byrne confirmed today.

The move would speed up infringement proceedings launched by the commissioner three weeks ago - but a full hearing in the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg could still take two years to complete.

Mr Byrne told a news conference in Brussels, the 20 Commissioners will meet in Strasbourg on Tuesday when they are expected to dispatch a "reasoned opinion" to Paris setting out the grounds for taking the French government to court.

Clearly angered by the French government's failure to contact him, he told a Brussels news conference "I have received no communication from Paris whatsoever. I only know what has been in the press. That surprises me, but perhaps they will get in touch later on."

The interim measures to speedily force France to allow British beef into the country will involve a swift court case in which a judge will rule on whether it is unfair to let the trade blockade go on when a final verdict against France is the likely long-term outcome.

The main argument would be that British farmers are continuing to lose a huge slice of the potential European export market for beef and should not be obliged to wait for a final verdict for years more - by which time the damage done to their trade with France could be irreversible.

The move would be largely symbolic - very little British beef is currently consumed by the French - but France would have to allow British beef into its shops while the full courtroom wrangling continued.

Meanwhile, the National Farmers' Union appealed for a continued boycott of French goods. "We have to send a very clear message to the French Government about what the British people think of their actions," said NFU president Ben Gill.

Asda announced that it would switch from French to British suppliers for one variety of potato, following its earlier change to British suppliers of brie and bread.

But other supermarkets, including Sainsbury, Safeway and Waitrose, have reported no fall in the sales of French produce.



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