The first steps in a massive selective slaughter programme began last night when Douglas Hogg, the Agriculture Minister, announced a series of interim measures aimed at restoring confidence and persuading the European Commission to lift the ban.
They included an immediate ban on the sale of meat from newly slaughtered cattle over 30 months old; extending specified bovine offal (SBO) controls to stop possibly infected cattle heads and lymph glands entering the food chain; pounds 1.5m a week compensation to the rendering industry; and pounds 50m a year in EU aid for the slaughter of bull calves up to 10 days old.
The hard-bargaining was already under way on the British package on the eve of today's summit between European Commission and British officials, led by Richard Packer, permanent secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture. Mr Hogg will meet Franz Fischler, the European Commissioner in Brussels today.
The final deal could be reached at a meeting of agriculture ministers on Monday, but Mr Major's key demand will be for the early lifting of the ban, which ministers believe is the only hope of rebuilding consumer confidence.
The Prime Minister will be seeking a cut in Britain's annual contributions to the EU to pay for the compensation, which could amount to pounds 500m a year for farmers.
The package, approved by the Cabinet yesterday, will include selective destruction of cows, and could last for years.
The BSE affair, described by one official as a "huge crisis", is certain to dominate the formal opening of the conference.