As Germany yesterday dashed hopes of an early end to the beef crisis, Labour accused the Government of complacency in failing to maintain standards in slaughterhouses.
Jochen Borchert, the German minister of agriculture, declared in a German radio interview: "Nobody seriously expects the ban to be lifted in six weeks' time." At the same time, Douglas Hogg, the embattled Minister of Agriculture, admitted that he, too, did not know when it would be halted.
Mr Hogg - said by senior Whitehall sources to have the full backing of the Prime Minister despite speculation about his future - admitted he could not "put a timetable" on the ending of the ban. "My business is not to arouse expectations which I cannot fulfil," he said.
Mr Borchert's bleak prediction came as Labour renewed its assault on the Government by releasing figures which it claimed showed a consistent failure to "regulate and enforce" high meat standards in slaughterhouses.
The party accused ministers of "complacency" after obtaining official figures from November 1994 showing 30 per cent of slaughterhouses in England and Wales scored less than 50 out of 100 points for meat hygiene standards. Altogether 80 per cent scored less than 70 under the hygiene assessment system, while only 1 per cent were awarded more than 90.
Labour also highlighted an independent report from 1993 which warned that some slaughterhouses should have been closed down many years earlier on public health grounds. And it said that the Government's own figures demonstrated in the autumn of 1995 that 48 per cent of slaughterhouses were failing to meet its specified bovine offal regulations introduced in 1989.
The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) said that while many breaches of regulations had been minor there had been some serious cases. But the ministry had already taken steps to ensure more stringent enforcement and the latest audit - this February - found only 6 per cent of slaughterhouses failing to meet SBO regulations.
Mr Hogg, who used last week's meeting of EU agriculture ministers in Luxemburg to explain Britain's proposals for a pounds 3bn cull of 4 million older cattle, said the EU ministers had unrealistic expectations of what measures the UK could take.
Some Whitehall sources suggested privately yesterday that the German government's attempts to sustain the EU ban over a longer period was partly to strengthen the hand of German provincial governments which face action in the European Court of Justice from British meat traders over bans on British beef last year.
Mr Hogg said on Radio 4's World at One that he had offered confidence- building measures beyond those that were recommended by the Government's scientific advisers. "I think they had unbased expectations as to what one can do. There was constant talk, for example, of eradicating BSE in a very short period of time as a condition of lifting the ban. Now that is simply not possible."
Under repeated questioning he at first tried to laugh off suggestions he may resign. Pressed further he said: "Obviously I am doing my job as best I can . . . If people come to a different solution, so be it. That's life."
Harriet Harman, Labour's spokeswoman on health, said action to improve standards in abattoirs was now essential if confidence in beef was to be restored. "While public confidence in British beef remains weak, the Government is still failing to act. The Government's concern not to regulate has left the consumer at risk and the meat industry vulnerable.
"Cleaner abattoirs mean safer meat. Safer meat means consumer confidences at home and abroad."
The most encouraging sign for the Government was that Sainsbury's reported fresh beef sales in its supermarkets were 70 per cent up on last week. After a half-price promotion, sales for Tuesday and Wednesday were reportedly "steady" at 80 per cent of normal trading,Reuse content