Butchers warned over beef on bone

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Butchers selling beef on the bone were last night warned by the agriculture minister, Jeff Rooker, that they could face six months' imprisonment after the Commons passed the regulations endorsing the ban on its sale by 312 votes to 196, a Government majority of 116.

A number of country butchers have continued to sell beef on the bone to meet demand from customers, but Mr Rooker said the Government had issued guidance to assist prosecution by health inspectors and he warned that the regulations would be enforced, with maximum penalties of up to a pounds 5,000 fine and six months imprisonment on summary conviction.

"These regulations are as enforceable as other public health and consumer protection measures," he said.

"Any businesses that are found to be acting illegally are being advised of their obligations and warned to stop. Thereafter, it is not the responsibility of the Government - it is the responsibility of the judicial process."

The Government came under fire from Liberal Democrat and Opposition MPs for over-reacting to the threat of BSE - mad-cow disease - being passed to humans from beef on the bone.

Labour MPs with rural constituencies were warned by Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat spokesman, that they were putting their seats at risk by voting for the parliamentary order because of the damage to farmers and the rural economy from the ban on the sale of beef on the bone. "This is a thoroughly bad measure, an over-reaction likely to be counter-productive," said Mr Kennedy.

Urging the Government at the 11th hour to rethink the decision to ban the sale of beef on the bone, he said the vote was a litmus test for Labour backbench MPs with rural seats.

The Government was offered three choices by SEAC, the special scientific committee of experts who advise ministers on food safety, but Mr Kennedy said ministers had chosen the most drastic option of a total ban. "Instead, having made the advice public, they should have allowed the public to weigh the minute risks involved for themselves," he said.

Michael Jack, the shadow agriculture minister, called for the public to be allowed to make their own choice about eating beef on the bone.

Defending the Government, Mr Rooker said the risk of contracting CJD - the human form of BSE - may have been very small but it was "very real". "The idea that we might be able to eliminate this by cooking is a non- starter," he said.

"The agent is so powerful that the surgical instruments used on CJD victims have to be destroyed. They cannot be sterilised. It would be quite wrong to expose people to this disease."

The National Farmers' Union issued MPs with a briefing note in preparation for the late-night vote, urging them to defeat the Government.