The crisis that engulfed the Conservative government and cost Britain pounds 1.5bn yesterday confronted Tony Blair's government with the agonising decision to ban beef on the bone from all shops, supermarkets, butchers and restaurants. Jack Cunningham, the Minister for Agriculture, acted immediately to try to shore up public confidence in the meat trade after receiving the advice of the Government's scientific experts that there was a small risk of BSE-infected material getting into the human food chain through bones.
The Government was forced to act quickly after recommendations made by the committee leaked out from its monthly meeting on Tuesday night. The ban will apply to imported beef as well. The European Commission said last night that it would be legal to ban such sales - as long as the meat is deboned in the United Kingdom.
But the rushed decision - based on new scientific work by the Central Veterinary Laboratory - led to confusion, consternation and in some cases, immediate action by restaurants. By lunchtime yesterday, T-bone steak was off the menu at Beefeater and Harvester restaurants.
Farmers were dismayed. "What a time to announce it! We're right on our knees with the strength of the pound. We've got terrible problems with imports," said Ian Pettyfer, a farmer who had been taking part in a protest about government inaction over low farm incomes. Although meat "on the bone" represents only about 5 per cent of the beef market, banning it has a symbolic effect, while also showing that the book on BSE, or mad cow disease, is not closed.
The new tests consisted of purposely infecting cattle with BSE and then killing them at various stages of the disease. Extracts from tissues were then injected into mice to see if they became ill. The results found that the peanut-sized nerve bundles known as the "dorsal root ganglia", which lie beside each vertebra of the spine, could be infectious. That in turn could endanger humans, because the BSE disease agent - a misshapen form of a normal body protein - can cause the "new variant" form of the brain-wasting illness Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (v-CJD). Officially, 23 Britons have so far died of v-CJD.
Dr Cunningham said that the move was being taken on a precautionary basis. "It will ensure that UK consumers continue to be given the highest protection possible against the risks from BSE, while we press ahead with our determined action to eradicate this disease."
He and Professor John Pattinson, chairman of SEAC, the expert committee which gave the advice, said last night at a hurriedly arranged press conference that the same tests which uncovered the new risk had shown that meat, beef liver and kidneys were safe.
Restaurants will be stopped from making oxtail soup to halt the supply of bones, although cans of soup are regarded as safe.The ban will also halt the use of bones in stock cubes, and gelatine for food which includes some confectionery.
The ban will not come into effect until an order is passed through the Commons but Dr Cunningham said in the meantime, the public should stop buying beef on the bone either in shops or restaurants. "If people who want to avoid a very small risk they should only buy beef off the bone."
In the Commons, Michael Jack, the Tories' agriculture spokesman, said the move would worry quality butchers and farmers raising long-maturing animals.
Dr Cunningham replied: "Consumers are worried too. Are you really suggesting that we should have suppressed this information, that we should have refused to act on SEAC's advice and that we should have kept this matter quiet? Is that what you would have preferred?
"Notwithstanding that this is a very small risk, I could not accept that even a small risk should be taken. That is the basis on which we have taken this action."
He said that other experiments using the same technique have so far shown negative results for muscle, meat and blood.
But Stephen Dealler, an independent expert on BSE and CJD, said yesterday that using mice might be too insensitive a test: "You can only inject a small amount into them, whereas humans eat comparatively large amounts of food." He said yesterday's ban is "a reasonable step to take" because "it's impossible to say exactly how infectious these tissues would be."
Yet the finding also implies that British meat produced under existing UK regulations is safer than that imported from abroad. The infectivity only showed up in tissue from cattle over 30 months old - but those cannot be used for food in the UK.
Yet on the Continent, such cattle are regularly used for food. And countries there are now showing the signs of BSE outbreaks which could devastate their beef industry as much as Britain's. "There are more infection in other countries - they're at the beginning of their epidemic, rather than the tail end," said Dr Dealler.