A commission spokesman, Gerard Kiely, said that European Union agricultural experts might recommend a "wider, more selective cull" in response to recent evidence that the disease can be passed from cows to their calves.
Pressure for a more thorough British slaughter of cows has been growing this month in several EU countries, despite the possibility that it will lead to yet another beef row, distracting the EU from other business. No EU officials share the professed belief of John Major, the Prime Minister, that the ban on British beef exports will be lifted by the end of this year.
Mr Kiely's remarks overshadowed a report by researchers at Oxford that suggested that mad-cow disease would die out by 2001, regardless of how many cattle are slaughtered. British farmers seized on the report as proof that the Government should reduce its present planned cull of 120,000 cows, but Mr Kiely called such hopes unrealistic.
Mr Major faces the threat of a new revolt from his Euro-sceptic MPs amid growing evidence that his "beef war" against the EU ban on British beef exports was fought in vain.
Angela Browning, the agriculture minister, yesterday sought to pacify Tory rebels who declared that, after the new research, they would not support "needless" slaughter of cattle.
Despite previous signs that the Government might extend the cull in the light of evidence of mother-to-calf transmission of "mad-cow disease", she hinted that it might now seek to reduce the numbers culled, setting it on a fresh confrontation with Brussels. She said on BBC radio: "We need to take stock quite urgently of the implications of this new evidence."
She was responding to John Biffen, the former Tory Cabinet minister, who said he would not support the slaughter plans in the Commons. "I wouldn't be prepared to use my vote to maintain the prospective cull, which is going to result in an enormous number of cattle, with no traces of BSE whatever, being put into the charnel house," he said.
Several Tory Euro-sceptics have said they would not back the slaughter policy, and last week Nicholas Budgen, MP for Wolverhampton SW, called for the policy of non-co-operation with the EU to be restored. In June, Mr Major set November as his target for lifting most of the EU ban on British beef. This now looks impossible to meet. And the "fig leaf" negotiated by Mr Major which allowed him to lift the policy of non-co-operation has produced no result. The declaration appended to the summit communique said that Britain would be allowed to export beef to non-EU countries if the commission approved it, but since then no such exports have been applied for.
The cull of younger cattle was supposed to begin this month but will now have to wait until the Government and European Commission reconsider which animals should be selected - and for a Commons vote to approve it, which cannot take place until MPs return in October. Labour and the Liberal Democrats refuse to support the Government's proposed slaughter of 127,000 cattle under the age of 30 months.
Mr Kiely said in Brussels that any proposal for a revised cull that involved eliminating fewer cases of BSE would be "very difficult to sell" to the EU's other 14 member-states.
He pointed out that most EU governments see the BSE crisis not so much as a matter of how many cows to kill, but as a question of public confidence in eating beef.
"The issue is the protection of consumers' health and the eradication of BSE," he said.Reuse content