Government considers slaughtering up to 4.5 million

Threat to the beef industry; Europe decides today; Is eating lamb also dangerous? page 2
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The Independent Online
The Government yesterday raised the daunting prospect of the slaughter of 4.5 million cattle in a bid to combat the threat of BSE spreading to humans.

The Agriculture Minister Douglas Hogg said that the Government was considering the slaughter of older cattle on the advice of scientific advisers that there have been few cases of BSE confirmed in cattle under the age of 30 months.

Speaking on BBC TV's On the Record, Mr Hogg said: "A slaughter policy is not excluded. By focusing on 30 months as the advisory committee have done, they are actually focusing on the core of the problem." The Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee met in Berkshire over the weekend and produced recommendations which will be given to ministers this morning.

The committee is expected to recommend to the Government that parents with young children should be warned of the dangers of feeding them beef and beef products. It is thought that the scientists advice could cover children of primary school age. Stephen Dorrell, Secretary of State for Health, and Mr Hogg are likely to make statements in the Commons this afternoon.

Farmers and abattoirs warned last night that the slaughter of 40 per cent of the 11.8 million national herd would destroy the beef industry and have a disastrous impact on milk supplies. They admitted public confidence in British beef would only be restored once cattle is incinerated but stressed an extensive compensation package would be needed to save their livelihoods.

Supermarkets, reporting a sharp drop in beef sales, are likely to announce later today whether they will follow the example of McDonald's by banning British beef.

The slaughter move came as it emerged that experts are considering the possibility that British sheep may have become infected with "mad cow disease", which has been linked to 10 human cases of the degenerative brain condition Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease.

SEAC is considering whether to ban sheep offal as well as cattle offal from entering the human food chain, following experiments in which sheep fed with BSE-contaminated material developed the disease.

The European Union agriculture commissioner Franz Fischler is expected to respond in Brussels tonight to a Government request for financial help for 100,000 United Kingdom beef farmers facing ruin.

Mr Hogg, said he hoped the EU would provide help: "I shall be looking to the European Union for financial support should we require a great deal of public expenditure." He held talks with the European Commission on Friday. A spokesman said the Commission was keen to help with the elimination of animals "on the basis of preventive veterinary or scientific need", but that there might be difficulty in apportioning blame for past actions.

A complete ban on UK beef exports to all 14 other EU countries is expected to be imposed today after a meeting in Brussels of veterinary officers representing EU governments. Ten EU countries have already banned British beef.

Harriet Harman, Labour's health spokeswoman, also asked Professor John Pattison, chairman of SEAC, further detailed questions at a meeting on Friday. She accepted the committee could not put a figure on how risky eating beef is, but was told that it can judge that some things are riskier than others.

She asked for league tables of relative risk for different ages, different parts of cattle, different kinds of meat, and for a list of beef products ranked in risk order.

She also asked that the committee set out the range of options for Government action in addition to its recommended action. "Then we would be able to see what judgment the Government has made," she said.

Labour favours slaughtering herds with the highest percentages of infected cattle, a move which Mr Hogg described as another option. Of the 100,000 cattle farmers in Britain one-third have had cases of BSE, which would mean 4 million cattle would have to be destroyed.

Farmers warned the proposal would devastate milk supplies because dairy cows which would only have started producing milk in the last six months would also be destroyed. One said: "It is not economically viable. BSE is not transmitted to milk so there is no danger."

Last night a senior vet warned that disposing of cattle carcasses from a mass slaughter would pose a major public health problem. Nick Henderson, a former publisher of Veterinary Times, said pits would have to be dug on farms, the cattle shot with a bolt pistol and the carcasses burnt. "They would have to be destroyed by fire. I cannot think of any other way of disposing of them," he said.