Ministers try to tough out beef crisis

Ministers reject calls to slaughter cattle as Europe announces a total ban
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Ministers yesterday resisted pressure to slaughter several million cattle amid signs that they were still hoping to tough out the BSE crisis despite the announcement of two more cases of CJD and further bans on British beef.

Stephen Dorrell, Secretary of State for Health, told the Commons yesterday that he would not be issuing new advice to parents to withhold beef from their children and mounted a robust attack on Labour "scaremongering" over the crisis.

While senior ministers resisted calls for drastic action problems worsened elsewhere. A ban on British beef throughout Europe was confirmed and Burger King joined McDonald's in banning British beef although the chain said hamburgers from home-produced beef would remain on sale until Saturday.

Cattle markets around the country were empty with buyers not even bothering to turn up and, in the City, while markets initially breathed a sigh of relief, there was a sense that the crisis had not peaked.

Statements by Mr Dorrell and Douglas Hogg, Minister of Agriculture - the second within a week - followed a meeting of Cabinet ministers chaired by the Prime Minister at which they rejected, for the immediate future at least, the solution canvassed by Mr Hogg on Sunday of killing up to 4.5 million cows. Their statements were completed before yesterday's announcement from Brussels that EU veterinary experts were demanding a total ban on British beef - described by Mr Hogg as "unacceptable" - and Mr Hogg was careful not to rule out further measures to restore confidence in the market. The EU ban also covers processed food such as stock cubes, soups, drinks, sweets and gelatines which contain beef extract.

Fortified by a statement from the Government's scientific advisers making no further recommendations for action, and daunted by the potentially huge public expenditure costs in compensation for farmers of a large-scale cattle cull, the ministers stuck by their insistence that the risk from BSE-infected cattle remained "extremely small". Mr Dorrell said that on the basis of expert advice he was not ordering schools to take beef off menus - while pointing out that choice would be available to school pupils.

SEAC - the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee - in a report delivered to ministers yesterday, said that after consulting leading outside experts they had concluded that "infants and children are not likely to be more susceptible" to any human infection resulting from BSE.

SEAC repeated that in the "absence of any credible alternative the most likely explanation" for 10 cases of CJD was a link to exposure to BSE. But it added: "It is not in a position to confirm whether or not there is a causal link between BSE and human disease."

Whitehall sources suggested last night that Mr Hogg continued to press the case for a cull in the 11.8-million national herd at yesterday's meeting, but this was resisted by a powerful coalition of ministers who pointed both to the destabilising potential costs of such an operation and the fact that the scientific advisers had not made any such recommendation.

Both Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister, and Brian Mawhinney, the Tory Party chairman, argued that the SEAC report did not justify such action. And although Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, arrived at the meeting fresh from an overnight flight from Africa, not fully briefed on the crisis, the Treasury is understood to have objected strongly to a measure which would threaten substantial increases in the Public Sector Borrowing Requirement and the Government's commitment to tax cuts.

But the EU ban left many MPs convinced that yesterday's statements, far from drawing a line under the crisis, would be little more than a holding operation for the Government.

EU shut-out, page 2