French families have filed a ground-breaking lawsuit in Paris which, in part, accuses British Conservatives of spreading BSE

The families of two French victims of the human variant of Mad Cow Disease yesterday brought a legal action for manslaughter and "poisoning" against two former British Conservative governments.

The families of two French victims of the human variant of Mad Cow Disease yesterday brought a legal action for manslaughter and "poisoning" against two former British Conservative governments.

If a French magistrate decides that there is a criminal case to answer, British ministers or senior officials, from the Margaret Thatcher and John Major governments, could, in theory, be summoned before a French court.

British officials in Paris believe it is unlikely that the case will go that far, but legal documents on the case have been sent to London for expert advice.

The families of the French victims of CJD have formally accused unnamed British, French and European Union officials, from the period between 1986 and 1996, of "manslaughter, poisoning and placing the lives of others in danger". They accuse the "agents of British institutions" of allowing, or even encouraging, the export of UK cattle meat-and-bone meal to France, after it was banned in Britain in 1988 as the near-certain cause of the British BSE epidemic. They also accuse the Thatcher and Major governments of encouraging the export of British beef offal to France, even though its human consumption had been forbidden in the UK.

French and EU officials are accused of allowing both trades to continue, even though they knew, or should have known, that there was a serious risk to human health.

The case, if accepted, would break new legal ground in France. There is no precedent for a French criminal action against decisions taken by another European government. French courts have, however, allowed criminal actions against non-European governments, including, recently, an accusation that the Libyan leader Col Moammar Gaddafi ordered a terrorist attack on a French airliner.

During the time covered by the French legal action, John Gummer and Stephen Dorrell were the agriculture ministers in the Thatcher and Major governments.

The legal action marks a further stage in the anxiety, bordering on hysteria, surrounding BSE in France over the last two weeks, which is now communicating itself to other EU countries. The Italian government, faced with its own consumer revolt, defied EU rules yesterday and imposed a unilateral ban on imports of French beef on the bone. Since most beef is transported on the bone, this amounts to a near-total ban on French beef.

Spain and Austria have already banned imports of French live cattle.

The French government is hardly well-placed to object, having taken an equally illegal decision to ban the limited imports of "young" British beef, which were declared safe by the EU a year ago.

Nonetheless, President Jacques Chiirac protested against the Italian decision yesterday, accusing Italy of having BSE in its own cattle herds without admitting it. He said that there were no Italian cases because there were no Italian tests.

The suit calling for criminal action against British, French and EU officials for their actions - or failures to act - in 1986-1996 has been brought by the families of two of the the known French victims of new-variant CJD. (A fourth possible case in France is under investigation.) Lawyers for the families of Laurence Duhamel, 36, and Arnaud Eboli, 19, base their case on the steep increase after 1988 in the sale to France of British animal feed, containing the ground-up remains of British cows.

Although this feed had been identified as the likely cause of BSE, and banned in Britain, 12,500 tonnes were exported to other EU countries (mostly France) in 1988 and 25,000 tonnes in 1989. The trade continued, nominally to feed pigs and poultry, up until 1996.

British officials point out that there was nothing illegal about these exports. There was no French ban, at that time, on imports of meat and bone meal from Britain.

The moral case against the UK is stronger. It is generally accepted that British exports of suspect cattle fodder - both before and after it was banned in the UK in 1988 - caused the smaller epidemic of BSE now causing intense consumer anxiety in France. A rash of cases this week has brought the number of BSE attacks in France this year to just more than 100, compared to 31 last year. At the height of the UK epidemic in 1992, there were 32,000 cases, or 80 each day.

*First it was only mad dogs and Englishmen, but now even Germans who might have eaten too many British hamburgers have been branded a health risk. The German Red Cross confirmed yesterday that Germans who have spent six months in Britain between 1980 and 1996 may not donate blood.

The decision, welcomed by the Health Ministry in Berlin, follows recommendations by the prestigious Paul Ehrlich and Robert Koch Institutes. Their scientists based their verdict on fresh research in Britain indicating that CJD could be transmitted through the blood.