Government moves to bail out farmers

THE Government is preparing to intervene in the beef market to save cattle farmers from disaster as the crisis of confidence over BSE deepens, while its own panel of scientific experts conducts a two-day meeting to assess whether beef is safe for children.

Thousands of shoppers meanwhile gave their own verdict on the Government's assurances about beef safety - repeated yesterday by Douglas Hogg, the Agriculture Minister - by spurning the traditional Sunday joint in favour of pork, lamb or chicken. Supermarkets across the country confirmed that beef was largely off the menu, despite widespread price reductions.One London Sainsbury's ran out of lamb mince by 9.30am, although its beef shelves remained full. Fast-food outlets confirmed that burger sales were down.

Contingency plans for mass beef-buying are already being made by the Intervention Board, the body which, under the EU Common Agricultural Policy, buys beef from farmers when prices fall below specified levels.

The board is putting cold store companies on standby to handle new stocks; it currently has seven cold stores in Britain, but many more may be needed if beef prices keep falling.

Prices are likely to plunge if the 13 expert members of the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee tell the Government tonight that beef is not safe to be given to children. They are in secret conclave all weekend at the Civil Service College in Sunningdale, Berkshire, and will report their conclusions to the Government's Chief Medical Officer, Sir Kenneth Calman. An announcement is expected in Parliament tomorrow.

Professor Jeffrey Almond, a leading member of the committee, admitted they faced a tough test. Yesterday morning he said: "It's difficult to know where to strike a line - we don't want to scare people, but obviously we have to take the concerns of parents into account." He added that adult consumption would also be discussed.

John Major will see Stephen Dorrell, the Health Secretary, and Douglas Hogg, the Agriculture Minister, tomorrow to hear the findings. They will be joined by the Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke, to discuss price subsidy. This may present difficulties as the EU scheme is not geared to handle a price collapse in just one country.

The Government is also considering a selective slaughtering policy, as urged by European scientists on Friday, which would cull the older dairy cows most prone to BSE. Some senior Tory MPs are reluctantly coming to the view that the suggested slaughter and incineration of animals born before 1989 may be necessary.

Further pressure on the Government to intervene will come from an emergency inquiry into the BSE scandal on Wednesday, by the Commons Select Committees on Agriculture and Health. Richard Alexander, Conservative MP for Newark and a member of the Agricultural Committee, said last night: "There is grave anxiety, bordering on meltdown." Roger Moate, Tory MP for Faversham, said the investigation would be "a major opportunity for questioning ministers very, very closely. We want to ask about the adequacy of steps already announced, and what further steps we should be taking."

Labour yesterday mounted a ferocious attack on the Government, accusing it of "duplicity", "incompetence" and a "lacking in its duty of care to the public". Harriet Harman, Shadow Secretary of State for Health, blamed ministers for the confusion in public minds through their failure to ensure the correct questions were asked and answers given.

Ron Davies, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales and a former agriculture spokesman, said that, in answering more than 140 parliamentary questions since the late 1980s, ministers had, on every occasion, acted in a "less than honourable way" and had often been "duplicitous".