The death toll from CJD could rise to thousands or even millions, scientists warned yesterday.

The death toll from CJD could rise to thousands or even millions, scientists warned yesterday.

Dr Stephen Dealler, a microbiologist and leading CJD expert, said that, on average, people in the UK may have eaten 50 meals which included the tissue of an infected animal.

He said: "At the moment the number of cases of CJD we are seeing are doubling every year. If they double for a long time then the numbers are in millions. If they double for just a few years then the numbers are in thousands. At the moment it is very difficult to know."

Nick Brown, the Agriculture Minister, also warned that the human death toll from variant CJD could be "much, much larger."

Mr Brown said the Government did not know how many people would eventually be affected by the disease.

He said: "The reason we don't know is because we don't know the incubation period in humans. When we took the decision to enhance the care package for the victims of variant CJD - the human BSE - and to put compensation arrangements in place as well, we were very mindful of the fact that the numbers to whom this applies could be much, much larger."

The Government and trade bodies are also bracing themselves for a fall in sales of British beef, following the publication of findings by the BSE inquiry.

The Meat and Livestock Commission, which represents beef farmers, said it expected the renewed public focus on BSE would create a dip in sales. Sources at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food said they were expecting the BSE inquiry's findings to put some consumers off buying beef in the short term.

But they said the Ministry would "do all it can" to support the beef industry and that the Food Standards Agency would reassure consumers about the health safeguards which have been put in place.

A Maff source said: "It would not be surprising if some people do think again about beef because of this but we are not expecting this to last."

A Meat and Livestock Commission spokesman said: "The statistics are not yet available but we would probably expect that there will be a blip in consumer confidence given the huge weight of media coverage."

The British Retail Consortium said the supermarkets would be monitoring the effect of the BSE inquiry on sales but said repercussions could take some time to show up in statistics.

British beef is still banned in France and South Africa although Britain is challenging the legality of the French ban in the European courts.

Yesterday, in an interview with BBC's Breakfast with Frost, Nick Brown, said that eating British beef did not pose a risk to human health.

"I eat British beef, I know British beef is amongst the safest in the world," he said.