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 EU 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 Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease in humans.
The European 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 Creutzfeldt Jakob Disease". These require exports from Britain to be free of offal and nervous tissue; to come from herds free of BSE for at least six years and from animals 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, Minister of Agriculture, said a French suspension was "probably illegal", Whitehall sources indicated they would be asking the European Commission in the first instance to order the suspension to be lifted.
At Prime Minister's Question Time in the Commons yesterday, Tony Blair challenged John Major over the dangers to children of contracting CJD from infected beef. The Prime Minister noticeably stopped short of saying 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 health 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 on the Stock Market also dipped, Labour accused Mr Dorrell of"failing to come clean" about BSE. Alan Milburn, Shadow Health Minister, 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, said Mr Milburn, that "ministers have a duty to be fully open about the considerations which have so far taken palce behind closed doors."
Germany said it wanted the EU to order a total ban. European Commission experts held an emergency meeting with Britain's assistant chief veterinary officer Kevin Taylor to gather more details of the new evidence. The European Commission sought to play down any risk to consumers, pointing out that since 1990, when EU wide curbs were first agreed, it had "erred on the side of caution".Reuse content