BSE 'paranoia' sparks anger of farming MPs

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Douglas Hogg, the agriculture minister, yesterday was savaged by Tory MPs over the latest scare about BSE infecting British lamb, which sent the price of the meat tumbling by 20 per cent in markets around the country.

Tory MPs, furious with Mr Hogg when he announced fresh steps to check for possible BSE in sheep, was also accused by his own backbenchers of bowing to pressure from the EU and raising unfounded fears about the safety of the British lamb chop. They said he had been acting "out of an abundance of caution".

He said he was acting on the advice of the Government's food safety experts and on reports by French experts that in laboratory tests sheep had contracted BSE when fed with contaminated offal. The agriculture minister stressed that there was "no evidence of BSE occurring naturally in the sheep flock".

But his words have inflamed many Tory MPs, including a number with farming constituencies. Chris Gill, a Tory Euro-sceptic MP, accused Mr Hogg of learning nothing from the beef scare and doing nothing to restore or maintain public confidence.

Sir Patrick Cormack, the Tory MP for South Staffordshire, said: "We're in danger of a national epidemic of paranoia." Paul Marland, another Euro- sceptic Tory, said: "Where is this going to end?" John Home Robertson, a Labour farming MP, suggested it was "another fine mess" he had got the country into.

Fears were raised after Franz Fischler, the EU's agriculture commissioner, told a meeting of ministers there was experimental evidence from experiments that sheep could contract BSE.

Mr Hogg added to the fears by saying that the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee had advised that BSE could become established in the country's sheep flock, but that the nervous disease scrapie, which produces similar symptoms, could "mask" the disease.

Mr Hogg said the Government was consulting with its European partners, and the commission was formulating proposals for the removal of certain sheep, goat and deer offal - and possibly the heads of the stock - from the human and animal food-chain.

Agriculture officials today issued a proposal for heads of all sheep and be removed and destroyed in the same way as cattle.