A Cabinet-level decision to veto a hugely expensive programme of cattle slaughter was swiftly followed by the disclosure of two more suspected cases of Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease (CJD), promises by Wimpy, Burger King, and Wendy's fast-food chains not to use British beef, and the politically combustible ban by Europe.
Last night's developments came after Stephen Dorrell, Secretary of State for Health, told the Commons he would not be issuing new advice to parents to withhold beef and there were no plans to take it off school menus. His announcement followed a 40-hour meeting of the Spongiform Enceph- alopathy Advisory Committee (Seac) over the weekend which concluded by saying it did not "believe that additional measures are justified at this stage" - but the situation should be "kept under careful review".
However, Professor John Pattison, chairman of the committee, revealed a widening gap between ministers' certainties and increasing uncertainty in the committee about the dangers posed by BSE. Asked whether red meat was safe to eat, he said: "There is no evidence in cases of BSE infection in muscle meat . . . but there are limits to the sensitivity of the tests, so in our calculation we can only say within limits of the tests." Inquiries by the Independent have also established that the Department of Health and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff) still cannot answer two key questions central to the crisis. Asked yesterday whether a single mouthful of infected beef could be enough to pass on the disease or whether the effects were cumulative, both departments said they did not know - though Maff said that a single gram of contaminated feed was sufficient to infect cows. Asked when the public could be sure that any risk of an epidemic of CJD caused by BSE-infected food was over, the answer was also that they did not know.
Downing Street said last night that Mr Major, who expressed, his "astonishment" at the EU decision, had secured a promise from Mr Santer for a second look at the scientific evidence. Senior officials and scientists are being sent to Brussels today to pursue Britain's case.
The newly established committee of senior Cabinet ministers will today meet to consider its next step in the wake of the EU ban - described last night by Mr Dorrell as "outrageous". The EU ban also covers processed food such as stock cubes, soups, sweets and gelatines with beef extract. Cattle markets around the country were empty yesterday with buyers not turning up.
The statements by Mr Dorrell and Douglas Hogg, Minister of Agriculture, followed a meeting of Cabinet ministers at which they rejected, for the immediate future at least, the solution canvassed by Mr Hogg of killing up to 4.5 million cows.
Mr Hogg continued to press the case for a cull in the 11.8 million national herd but was isolated by a powerful coalition of ministers who lost no time in pointing to the fact that the scientific advisers had not made any such recommendation.
Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, was also against such a mass slaughter - which could cost the Government several billion pounds in compensation to farmers, threatening a big increase in the PSBR and undermining chances of tax cuts.
But the EU ban left many MPs convinced yesterday's statements, far from drawing a line under the crisis, would be little more than a holding operation for the Government.
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