Brussels attempts to play down dangers

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The Independent Online
Officials in Brussels last night sought to play down any risk to consumers from eating British beef, but were privately admitting they were bracing themselves for a potential collapse of the European beef market.

"It may be too late for tighter measures. Rightly or wrongly housewives all over Europe are already turning their backs on beef in the shops. We could be looking at meltdown," one senior official said.

Of the 30 million EU cattle slaughtered each year out of a total herd of 80 million the incidence of BSE - 12,000 cases, nearly all in Britain - is small, it was also stressed.

The Commission said it would wait for the advice of EU chief scientists and veterinary officers who will meet today and Monday, but was prepared to move rapidly if they advise new health measures. It stressed that unilateral decisions to ban British beef, such as those taken by France, were illegal, but pointed out that member states may invoke the EU treaty to block imports in the event of a grave threat to health.

Behind the scenes EU agriculture officials were considering what, if any, scope exists in the pounds 30bn EU farm budget to compensate British livestock owners if total eradication of the UK herd of 11 million cattle goes ahead. But with animals valued at up to pounds 1,000 each, compensation claims could run as high as pounds 11bn "It would burst the bank. It cannot be done," said one source.

There are also doubts in the Commission as to whether destroying the entire British herd would actually kill the BSE agent.

Germany has yet to put in place any unilateral measures, but will push hard for a Europe-wide ban, the government in Bonn said yesterday.

Germany, where consumer panic over "mad cow disease" has always been highest, warned its EU partners as long ago as 1994 that it did not believe Britain's claim that there was no link between the cattle brain condition and CJD in humans.

A German health ministry report in 1994 stated: "Reports of suspected cases of CJD in fairly young people in the UK give good reason for concern. If, as with Aids, the significance of the BSE problem is realised too late this may have grave consequences, proving fatal for virtually incalculable numbers of victims."

If this scenario materialised the report warned, the issue of state liability had to be raised - meaning the Government could be liable to compensate victims.