Chief Political Correspondent
Millions of tons of beef at risk from BSE or "mad cow disease" may have to be stored in deep-freeze warehouses until more incinerators can be built to destroy the carcasses in Britain.
Cash to build more incinerators is expected to be a key part of a pounds 2bn deal being thrashed out today by Douglas Hogg, the Minister of Agriculture, and EU ministers to restore consumer confidence and get the world-wide ban on British beef exports lifted.
The retail trade was also proposing the introduction of a new kite mark on meat to reassure the public that beef is from BSE-free herds, after reports of a pick-up in trade.
Britain was trying to secure the package last night in hard bargaining between officials over the extent of the slaughter package, the price to be paid to farmers faced with a slump in the beef market, and the amount of the bill to be met by the British taxpayer.
Ministers have accepted that the key to restoring confidence is the selective disposal plans, and have been considering a massive programme for up to 4.5 million cows, demanded by the National Farmers' Union.
The nine existing incinerators in Britain could not cope, but British ministers have privately ruled out burning the carcasses in open fields. The Independent was told by one Cabinet source: "We will have to build more facilities. We can't have burning in the fields. It's got to be done in a properly controlled way."
Most of the condemned meat may have to be stored in deep freeze until it can be destroyed. In order to restore public confidence in the beef industry, it would have to be stored in tight security to avoid it finding its way on to the black market. The nine privately owned incinerators could cope with 3,000 carcasses a week, if they ran round the clock. Some estimates suggest up to 15,000 carcasses a week may have to be destroyed, if the large-scale plan is adopted. That could require an additional 36 incinerators, at a cost of pounds 1m each, but the use of storage could reduce the number of new incinerators to single figures.
Sir David Naish, the NFU president whose slaughter plan forced a Government U-turn last week, hinted at the plans on the BBC's Breakfast with Frost.
"Obviously at the moment, the incineration capacity is not there. But in today's technological advances, there is no doubt at all it quickly could be put in place. The animals would have to be slaughtered properly in slaughter houses to make sure the brain and the spinal cord were removed, and were burnt at high temperature.
"All the meat that could not be burnt straight away could be temporarily stored. I accept there is a logistics problem, but this is much deeper than logistics."
Ministers have not yet produced detailed plans of where additional incinerators could be built, but they may be close to existing sites to limit planning problems. A ban was imposed last week on the sale of beef from cattle over 30 months old most at risk from BSE. Milk is not affected.
Mr Hogg will today press the European Commissioner, Franz Fischler, for the ban to be lifted before negotiating the final details with agriculture ministers in Luxembourg
Sir Leon Brittan, the vice-president of the commission, said the European Union was ready to bear a "serious" proportion of the cost if a mass slaughter of British cattle was necessary to quell fears on beef safety.
He indicated that Brussels could foot the bill for anything between 50 per cent and the full cost of any large-scale culling. The extent to which the British taxpayer will have to pick up part of the bill was one of the issues being discussed by officials yesterday.
The Cabinet source said it would be "ridiculous" to carry on destroying cattle and burning the beef, for years ahead, after BSE had been eradicated.
Some senior Tory MPs believed Mr Hogg would be moved in the summer reshuffle by the Prime Minister, but that has now been made impossible by weekend reports that his resignation had been rejected by the Prime Minister. The Tory counter- attack on Labour has secured Mr Hogg's Cabinet position.
There were continued angry recriminations for the collapse in the beef market. Brian Mawhinney, the Conservative Party chairman, rejected a charge by Tony Blair, the Labour Leader, that the Government had been incompetent.
"I have never heard Opposition politicians behave so disgracefully and so put at risk the national interest because they thought they could grub a few votes," Dr Mawhinney said on the BBC's On the Record.
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