and SARAH HELM
Ministers were last night preparing to bow before the overwhelming weight of farming, consumer and European opinion by sanctioning the large scale destruction of cattle in order to restore confidence in British beef.
John Major last night called an emergency meeting of key ministers after the National Farmers' Union had made an unprecedented plea for him to sanction the removal of at least 15,000 older cattle a week from the food chain at a cost of pounds 700m a year.
Strong signs of a climbdown came after the Downing Street meeting last night. While standing firmly by the principle that the scientific advice did not justify a dramatic gesture, one Whitehall source conceded: "There has been a collapse in the market and we are living in the real world."
The NFU scheme would mean the carcasses of the slaughtered cattle would be incinerated. The National Farmers' Union president, Sir David Naish, said earlier: "The events of the past week show that we have gone beyond the stage of relying solely on science."
In the first indication of a Government U-turn over the crisis, Mr Major had promised the Commons he would consider the call for selective destruction "very carefully" but angrily made it clear that if he had to take such measures he would lay the blame squarely on the Opposition for "undermining confidence" in the British beef industry.
Mr Major was speaking as it became clear in Brussels that the European Commission will today confirm its ban on British beef sales despite last- minute efforts by British diplomats and scientists to reverse the decision, and despite the united opposition of both British Commissioners, Sir Leon Brittan and Neil Kinnock. But there were also signs that the Commission was prepared to consider cash help for British farmers if the crisis does lead to the slaughter of cattle.
In angry exchanges in the Commons, Mr Major said ministers would study proposals, made in the letter from Sir David, for 12,000 to 15,000 ageing dairy cows to be being destroyed each week instead of being killed for meat. Sir David called for cattle normally slaughtered at the end of their working lives as dairy cows or suckling mothers to be stopped from entering the food chain.
The proposal, backed by leading food manufacturing, catering and retailing industry leaders, came as Ministry of Agriculture officials began exploring their chances of securing EU funds to compensate farmers for losing the profits from sending dairy cows no longer providing milk to be slaughtered for beef. Sir David also floated more tentatively other measures including "a limited all herd slaughter policy" for infected herds.
There had been clear signs of irritation among senior ministers with Douglas Hogg, Minister for Agriculture, for having given credence to the idea of large-scale slaughter by publicly airing the option at the weekend. It was left to Stephen Dorrell, the Secretary of State for Health, to conduct a media blitz including some rough handling by angry callers to a radio phone-in show during which he argued there were better ways of spending huge sums on public health than by compensating farmers for unnecessarily slaughtered cows.
Although both ministers appear today before a joint Health and Agriculture Select Committee meeting today, an announcement is unlikely before tomorrow's Cabinet and a later Commons debate.
In the Commons, Mr Major reserved his anger for the Opposition. Tony Blair, the Labour leader, accused the Government of "mind boggling incompetence" and demanded that Mr Major quantify the "extremely small" risk of contracting the human disease CJD from BSE- infected meat. Mr Major retorted: "It will be extremely difficult to restore confidence if MPs continue to undermine that confidence for reasons I think will seem unfathomable to people in the agricultural industry and to the wider public."
Sir David's letter to Mr Major and to leaders of the Opposition parties said the NFU supported Government policy of relying on its scientific advisers and insisted that the measures it had so far taken met "all food safety needs".
But then in a passage which looks increasingly likely to secure a partial reversal of Monday's decision not to remove tens of thousands of cattle from the food chain, Sir David wrote: "I have now concluded that despite the reassurance offered [on Monday] by the Secretary of State for Health in relation to the consumption of beef products by children, more must be done to restore consumer confidence both in the domestic market and in Britain's export markets in Europe and the rest of the world."
The proposal canvassed by Commission experts yesterday was for Britain to agree to the phased slaughter of dairy cows, the animals most prone to the disease. According to one estimate, the Commission might consider compensation of up to pounds 2bn should Britain agree to the slaughter of 700,000 dairy cows.
Ban `is only choice', page 2
The killer protein, page 17
BSE and Europe, page 19