Europe bans British beef

Major challenged over threat to children Third of schools impose ban Cattle prices slump
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The Independent Online
A Europe-wide ban on British beef started last night as consumers and their governments digested Britain's admission of a possible link between beef and Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease. France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Portugal and Sweden closed their borders to British beef and others were considering following suit.

Germany said yesterday it wanted the European Union to order a total ban. European Commission experts held an emergency meeting in Brussels with Britain's assistant chief veterinary officer, Kevin Taylor, to gather more details of the new evidence that eating beef infected by BSE, or "mad cow disease", could lead to the potentially fatal CJD in humans.

The EU's veterinary experts, meeting today, will decide whether imports of British beef constitute a public health hazard. The Commission sought to play down the risk to consumers, pointing out that since 1990, when EU-wide curbs were first agreed, it had "erred on the side of caution".

The rules, a spokesman said, were drawn up "in anticipation of a possible link between BSE and CJD". These require any exports from Britain to be free of offal and nervous tissue; to come from herds that have been free of BSE for at least six years and from animals that are younger than 30 months at the time of slaughter.

But as the Government continued to play a straight bat to Opposition pressure for a definitive statement on whether it was safe for children to eat beef, ministers made clear that the Government would to go to the European Court of Justice, if necessary, to outlaw the overseas bans.

After Douglas Hogg, the Minister of Agriculture, said that a French suspension was "probably illegal", Whitehall sources indicated that they would be asking the commission in the first instance to order the suspension to be lifted.

At Prime Minister's Question Time in the Commons yesterday, Tony Blair, the Labour leader, challenged John Major over the dangers to children of contracting CJD from infected beef. The Prime Minister noticeably stopped short of saying that it was safe to continue feeding them beef.

More than one-third of Britain's 30,000 schools no longer serve beef to pupils. Yesterday the number of education authorities banning beef almost doubled.

Stephen Dorrell, Secretary of State for Health, is expected to make a statement in the Commons on Monday about the risks to children, after SEAC, the independent committee of experts on BSE, has met this weekend.

The minister, asked about yesterday's revelation in the Independent that its experts had considered recommending the destruction of the 11.8 million- strong national herd, admitted the Government would be prepared to take this drastic step, if necessary. The cost of such action could run to pounds 20bn.

As beef prices fell heavily at markets and shares in food companies also dipped, the Labour Party accused Mr Dorrell of "failing to come clean" about BSE. Alan Milburn, a Labour health spokesman, said Mr Dorrell had failed to disclose all the options his advisers had been considering.

"We should be told what options were considered by SEAC; which options were rejected and why; whether the Government believes it is safe to continue feeding beef to children." Public concern is so great, Mr Milburn said, that "ministers have a duty to be fully open about the considerations which have so far taken place behind closed doors".