The Government is facing enormous logistical difficulties in making its U-turn on the beef crisis and achieving the destruction of 15,000 cattle a week. Experts say it will be impossible to carry out on such a scale and there are questions of how to meet the cost which could run to more than pounds 2bn over the next three years.
It emerged last night that ministers have not ruled out the grim prospect of thousands of carcasses being burned on farmland every week and ministerial sources confirmed that there were "real problems" over a massive disposal programme.
The Cabinet meets today to discuss proposals for selective slaughter with the crisis over bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) deepening at home and in Europe, while knowing that there are nowhere near enough incineration facilities. "We could cope with a few thousand, but if we went for the disposal of 41/2 million cows, there would be landfill implications,'' said a source.
The existing facilities to incinerate dead cows would not be able to cope and ministers are looking at alternatives, including burying carcasses in authorised dumps or using household incinerators. "It would depend on what programme the Cabinet decides on,'' said the source.
A statement on the disposal scheme may not be made immediately after the Cabinet decision because the Government wants to have in place a comprehensive programme, including a compensation deal with Brussels.
The Government's dilemma over how to re-establish confidence was not helped by the European Commission confirmation of a world-wide ban on the export of beef and beef products. The ban will be reviewed at regular intervals, but EC officials were adamant it would not be lifted until they were satisfied about safety.
The ban also covers any medicinal, pharmaceutical or cosmetic products using beef extracts but does not include milk or dairy products.
In an effort to spur Britain into agreeing a slaughter plan in order to bring the crisis under control, the commission offered to help compensate farmers and stabilise the stricken British market, once government proposals had been brought forward.
Signalling a U-turn by the Government, which has previously ruled out mass slaughters, John Major said last night: "The real problem we face now is not that beef is not safe - we believe it to be safe - but the enormous hype and hysteria we have seen over recent days has destroyed confidence in the beef market. We need to make sure that confidence is restored.'' He said he was "very angry indeed" about the ban on the trade, which employs 600,000 people in Britain.
The number of workers laid off because of the crisis soared yesterday amid fears that tens of thousands of jobs could be lost by the end of the week.
The British Veterinary Association last night dismissed as unworkable the plans to destroy up to 15,000 cows a week for up to three years, drawn up by the National Farmers' Union.
The removal and destruction of older cows from the food chain could result in pits being dug on farms, animals shot with a bolt pistol and their carcasses set alight.
Inquiries by the Independent have revealed that the Ministry of Agriculture is considering this option because it would only be able to cope with the incineration of 7 per cent of the cows earmarked for culling.
At present, there are only nine incineration plants in Britain licensed to handle around 1,000 cattle a week. They are already destroying 300 cows infected with BSE each week, which adds up to a shortfall of around 750,000 a year if the Government adopts the NFU proposed policy. However, the Licensed Animal Slaughterers and Salvage Association, whose membership includes the incinerators, said last night that if the NFU plans were reduced, they could cope with around 3,000 a week, operating around the clock, seven days a week. Extra incinerators would cost pounds 1m each and take a year to build.
David Stevenson, president of the British Veterinary Association, said of the NFU plan: "It is mind boggling. It would not start for months, it is a nonsense. This measure is supposed to restore consumer confidence but if the public see carcasses being burnt in fields and think infection could get into the water supply it will have the opposite effect.''
If farms were used for the destruction of thousands of older cows, pits at least two metres deep would have to be dug and cranes used to dump carcasses.
Mr Stevenson claimed the State Veterinary Service, with its duty to regulate the operation, might not be able to cope. Citing the the Foot and Mouth crisis in 1967, when thousands of carcasses were burnt in pits, he said the procedure was distressing for vets, and they might now be unwilling to oversee another mass slaughter. Concern has also been expressed that infected matter could transfer itself to land on which cattle would later graze.
t The Government's handling of the situation has not had an adverse effect on its popularity, according to the first opinion poll since the crisis erupted. A Mori poll in today's Times puts the Tories on 28 per cent, 2 per cent higher than a month ago, with Labour unchanged at 57 per cent and the Liberal Democrats down one, at 13 per cent.
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