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The European Union took a first step toward gradually easing its ban on British beef exports, but a long fight lies ahead over the terms as it made clear that Britain must do more to stamp out mad cow disease.

A carefully worded statement drafted by EU farm ministers on Tuesday after two days of talks, including a lively exchange over lamb dinner, offered enough scraps for Britain's Farm Minister Douglas Hogg, to claim a breakthrough, dipomats said.But the unanimously agreed conclusions were conspicuously short of detail on when and how the crippling ban would be removed while stressing demands from Britain's EU partners for urgent aid for all beef producers hit by the market collapse.

"It is in all our interests for the export ban to be discontinued as soon as possible," the EU's Austrian Farm Commissioner, Franz Fischler, said after the meeting.

But he added that a whole package of British measures, including the slaughter of cattle most at risk to the lethal brain disease, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), must first be implemented.

"It's really in Britain's hands," Fischler said.

The British government triggered the crisis March 20 with an admission that BSE might be transmissible to humans in the form of the fatal Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease. It has always maintained there was no scientific basis for the March 27 export ban on beef and beef products.

Hogg, who faces disappointed British farmers and a skeptical parliament, was wary of mentioning further concessions after the EU talks.



Cattle cull stalled

British plans to start culling cattle and rid the 11 million herd of mad cow disease ran into problems on Wednesday after it became clear that the abattoirs involved had yet to be formally approved.

The culling of hundreds of thousands of cows over 30 months old - part of a package of measures designed to wipe out mad cow disease and restore consumer confidence in beef - should have begun on Monday.

But the Intervention Board, the body overseeing the culling, said the 60 collection points and 44 abattoirs it wanted to use would only receive the required formal approval by late Wednesday at the earliest.