More at Stake Than Steak: Britain Aims to Avert Trade War ; an EU Panel Began a Review Yesterday of France's Decision to Ban British Beef

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Jennifer Jones hovers by the meat counter of her local Somerfield supermarket and launches into a proud defense of her country's beef.

"The French are not being fair to our beef farmers," declares the south Londoner. Ms. Jones is boycotting French products because of Paris's refusal to implement a European Union decision to lift a three-year ban on British beef, due to safety concerns.

"I definitely think the French are being unreasonable," says another patriotic shopper, Sheila Munday.

At stake is more than a piece of steak: The row threatens to erupt into a full blown trade war, souring relations between two EU allies that for generations have loved to hate each other.

The protests began when angry farmers blocked docks at Plymouth and Dorset to try to stop French trucks from entering the country. British supermarkets joined in, withdrawing items from French brie cheese to baguettes from store shelves and announcing that other goods would bear clear labels to aid the consumer boycott. French farmers retaliated on Tuesday, blocking British trucks from entering Calais through the Channel Tunnel.

Hopes for a resolution lie with the EU's scientific steering committee. The panel yesterday began a two-day evaluation of a 600- page report detailing France's reasons for believing that British beef remains unsafe. On Aug 1, the EU's ruling body, the European Commission, lifted a 1996 ban imposed following the scare over "mad cow" disease. Britain maintains its meat is safe to eat.

If the committee rules against Paris, London says it expects the EU to start legal action against the French in the European Court of Justice. But Prime Minister Tony Blair's government has resisted calls for a retaliatory ban on French products. "A tit-for-tat war is in nobody's interests," said Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown in a television interview this week.

Politically, the issue is a sensitive one for the New Labour government. Mr. Blair casts himself as a politician who looks out for the interests of ordinary hardworking people, yet also as a pro- European. …