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At least 11,000 tons of British beef have been shipped to mainland Europe by way of Ireland and Northern Ireland to get around an export ban, a French newspaper reported Sunday.

The report came a day after Saudi Arabia banned beef from Germany believed to have come from Britain, where so-called mad cow disease prompted the European Union in March 1996 to ban British beef exports.

Reports of leaks in the ban have persisted from the start, but the article in Sunday's Journal de Dimanche involved what appeared to be the largest slip yet.

The Journal said Jack Cunningham, Britain's farm minister, told a member of the European Parliament on Aug. 28 that "several tens of thousands of tons" were exported fraudulently from Britain in the past year and aimed at the European market.

The newspaper said its two-month investigation revealed two smuggling routes: One via Ireland, where the meat was given bogus Irish or Belgian labels, and another through Northern Ireland, where the beef was shipped on boats to France and Belgium.

European Union and national officials have been reluctant to assist judicial investigations out of fear of further harming the beef industry, already hard-hit by the mad cow disease, the paper said.

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