If the partners turn down the recommendation of the European Commission to lift the ban on tallow, gelatine and semen, ministers are ready to appeal directly to a meeting in a week's time of agriculture ministers to overturn the vets' decision.
Ministers have also privately discussed contingency plans for adopting an "empty chair" policy at key European meetings or blocking votes that require unanimity if there is no early lifting of the European ban on British beef exports.
Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary, warned yesterday that Britain was ready to take whatever action was necessary to get the ban lifted. Senior cabinet sources have told the Independent they believe the vets are being led by the "political masters" in Europe.
Ministers fear the Germans will succeed in persuading the European veterinary standing committee tomorrow to reject a recommendation for the partial lifting of the export ban on British beef products.
That could plunge the EU into a new crisis over Britain's demands. It would be embarrassing for Britain, when Jacques Chirac, the French president, is in Britain, and beef will be on the menu for a state banquet at Buckingham Palace.
Senior cabinet sources have told the Independent that their negotiating strategy could change if there is no progress on lifting the ban. But ministers have ruled out withholding British payments to the EU following advice from the Attorney General, Sir Nicholas Lyell, that it would break UK law.
John Major revealed the British anxieties when he used his keynote speech to the Scottish Conservative Party conference in Aberdeen to warn the EU vets' committee there would be an angry response if they blocked the lifting of the ban.
Letters, page 14