LONDON (CNNfn) - France's refusal to honor a European Union order to lift a ban on British beef exports turned into an all-out food fight in the supermarket aisles Friday, when one of the U.K.'s largest food chains said it will pull French bread and brie cheese from its shelves in protest.
Britain's No. 3 retailer Asda, which recently was purchased by the big U.S. retailer Wal-Mart (WMT) to create a European retailing powerhouse, said it will replace current stocks of the creamy French cheese with close substitutes from Scotland, Cornwall and Somerset.
A British baker will be brought in to replace the French baguette maker the company currently relies on, Asda said.
The move came the same day that another British grocery chain, Budgens (BDG), received a thank-you visit from the president of the U.K. National Farmers' Union, Ben Gill, for halting sales of French apples.
The moves underscore the growing grass-roots anger at the consumer level in Britain provoked by France's continued defiance of the EU's ruling Aug. 1 ending a three-and-half-year export ban on British beef.
Germany, the only other Continental laggard in obeying the EU order, says it intends to enforce the ruling as soon as its parliament approves the legislation.
With France and Britain, the culinary duel has gone deeper. British Prime Minister Tony Blair has exchanged blunt words on the issue with his French counterpart, Lionel Jospin, and has threatened to take the case to the European Court at the Hague in the Netherlands if France doesn't back down.
The EU imposed the ban in 1995 amid concerns that meat from cows suffering from what is widely known as mad-cow disease was the culprit behind an often fatal brain disease in humans known as Creutzfeld-Jakob disease. The malady has led to the deaths of about 40 people since it was first diagnosed.
The EU maintains it lifted the embargo only after being persuaded by its scientific advisers that the risk from contaminated beef had effectively been eliminated thanks to a mass culling and slaughter of afflicted cows in the aftermath of the scare.
France's health authorities, backed by the country's own scientific advisory panel, have resisted the EU edict, asserting, in the words last weekend of French Agriculture Minister Jean Galvany that "No scientist
.can say that there is no danger from British beef."
Asda officials couldn't be reached for immediate comment Friday. But a company spokeswoman told Reuters that the boycott of French brie and bread won't spread to all French products.
"Our customers haven't asked us to clear the shelves of French products," the spokeswoman said. She described the measure as a gesture of support for British farmers, who claim they have suffered $2.3 billion in lost beef sales since the ban was imposed.
Gill, the National Farmers' Union president, speaking during his visit to Budgens Friday, denounced the French defiance in blunt terms. "France's continuing ban is an outrage and we will continue all efforts to get it overturned," he said.
J. Sainsbury (SBRY), Britain's second-largest grocery chain, told CNNfn.com Friday it had no immediate plans to withdraw French products, but said it will clearly label the origin of goods so that consumers can make their own decisions on whether to boycott French produce.
French officials didn't immediately return phone calls to the agriculture ministry Friday.
-- from staff and wire reports