LONDON — So here we are, 60 days short of the new millennium and 66 years short of the date one thousand years ago (1066) when the French conquered Britain — and we are in the middle of La Guerre du Rosbif, or the Beef War, or Le Front de la vache folle (the mad cow front) as the French daily paper Le Monde had it. Predictably, Britain’s tabloid and rightwing press (they are not entirely the same thing) poured out a fusillade of insults at the French government for its decision to maintain the ban on importing British beef even though the rest of the European Union decided the ban should be dropped. British measures to prevent the spread of “mad cow disease” were sufficiently rigorous.

The new French food-safety agency, recently created in response to popular anxiety about swallowing poisonous food, had judged — and this was the very first judgment from this new body — that British beef could not be proved to be absolutely safe. Hence the ban.

Less than a fortnight later, another French agency revealed that French beef farmers had been feeding their animals reprocessed sewage, including human excrement. Shock, horror, outrage. Or, as the British Farmers’ Weekly, the trade paper for farmers put it this week: “Filthy hypocrites. There are no other words to describe those across the Channel who happily explain away the contamination of livestock feed with human and animal sewage while banning the sale of British beef produced to top animal-welfare and good-hygiene standards.”

Furious diplomatic activity and even wilder rhetorical activity ensued. The Conservatives demanded that the British ban the import of French beef. The agriculture minister, Nick Brown, announced that, personally speaking, not even a tiny morceau of anything French would pass his own lips, a few supermarkets withdrew a few lines of French stuff from their shelves — and French farmers retaliated by burning a few haystacks and threatening to block the ports through which almost all British exports to Europe have to pass.

Then, just when it was not clear where this new guerre was going, the EU’s independent committee of scientific experts announced, unanimously, that the French state was in the wrong. Everyone could climb down.

This was very fortunate. Because no sooner had various spokespersons for British beef (actual beef and symbolic Englishness) shot verbal bombs of fury and outrage at the French than they turned round and insisted that they did not want, absolutely did not want, a trade war. It was becoming farcical — a war that was not a war, an entirely symbolic display of huffing and puffing, a competition of patriotisms. Because when it came to the point, when the war party (Conservatives, farmers, patriots) had to reveal their hand — there was nothing in it. There was nothing in it because: 1) despite the noise, British consumers went on buying French products at the supermarkets and went on crowding on to Eurostar trains under the Channel in order to pop up in France and fill their bag with better or cheaper French produce; 2) because few people under 50 nurture any serious feeling of ill will against the French; and 3) only the far right can imagine a future in which Britain is no longer inside the European Union and therefore, like the French, bound by EU trade rules.

Of course, this is not the end of the matter. The matter revealed by this dispute is huge and touches much of the agenda for the next millennium. First of all, there is the question of food safety. Given this rebuff to France’s brand-new food-safety agency by the EU scientists’ committee, how are such agencies to proceed? (A food-safety agency is also being created in Britain, though it does not yet exist.) This is a new issue, demanding new institutions and new policies. They are a response to both the global food market and to the new competitive pressures to produce more and more food at lower and lower prices. As lower prices are achieved by dropping standards — feeding the animals food of dubious provenance for instance — how can consumers trust that the food they put in their mouths does not contain repellent or dangerous material?

This has also spurred the development of 21st-century food — no, not the nutritious pills and tablets of science-fiction imagination, but the back-to-the-earth antimodernism of the organic-food farmers. This sort of farming, eschewing insecticides, chemical fertilizers and any chemical growth factors — is slow, expensive and suddenly at the forefront of modern eating. Ironically, the British response to both the BSE crisis and the strength of its own animal-welfare lobby, means that it is now one of the most careful, and caring, of meat producers in the EU. (Sweden is generally accorded the top position for animal-husbandry standards.)

Then there is the next round of negotiations of the World Trade Organization in Seattle, in November. Already, the EU’s ban on the import of American beef that has been injected with growth-inducing hormones is down on the table for discussion. Although the WTO’s ruling body has already adjudicated that the EU is in the wrong to ban American beef, it currently seems very unlikely that the EU will want to allow the import of beef treated in a way that it does not allow its own farmers to engage in. In fact, it is French hostility to American methods and American power that has a lot to do with tensions between the EU and the United States, and something to do with the Anglo-French beef war. It is Britain’s perceived closeness (for which, read obsequiousness) to the U.S. that in part causes the French anger and contempt.

More than that, there is an immensely powerful symbolism in the idea of the people of one land eating the food that is nourished and produced by that land. The EU may come under impossible pressure to both facilitate open competition within the EU and across the world and also to facilitate the higher production of foodstuffs within each nation for its own consumption. These various aims are incompatible — but again, the difficulty of securing popular enthusiasm for the EU is going to be at the top of the 21st-century agenda.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.