France, Belgium Sweden and the Netherlands closed their borders to British beef and others were considering following suit. Germany said it wanted the EU to order a total ban. European Commission experts held an emergency meeting with Britain's assistant chief veterinary officer, Kevin Taylor, to gather more details of the new evidence.
The Commission sought to play down any risk to consumers, pointing out that since 1990, when EU-wide curbs were first agreed, it had "erred on the side of caution". The rules, a spokesman said, were drawn up "in anticipation of a possible link between BSE and Creutzfeldt Jakob Disease". These require exports from Britain to be free of offal and nervous tissue; to come from herds free of BSE for at least six years and from animals younger than 30 months at the time of slaughter.
Of the 30 million EU cattle slaughtered each year out of a total herd of 80 million the incidence of BSE - 12,000 cases, nearly all in Britain - is small, it was also stressed.
Privately, however, officials admitted they were bracing themselves for a potential collapse of the European beef market. "It may be too late for tighter measures. Rightly or wrongly, housewives all over Europe are already turning their backs on beef in the shops. We could be looking at meltdown," one senior official said.
The Commission said it would wait for the advice of chief scientists and veterinary officers who will meet today, but it was prepared to move rapidly if they advised new health measures. It stressed that unilateral decisions to ban British beef - such as those taken by France - were illegal but that member states may invoke the EU treaty to block imports in the event of a grave threat to public or animal health.
Behind the scenes, alarmed EU agriculture officials were already considering what, if any, scope exists in the pounds 30bn EU farm budget to compensate British livestock owners if total eradication of the UK herd of 11 million cattle goes ahead. But with animals valued at up to pounds 1,000 each, compensation claims could run as high as pounds 11bn. "It would bust the bank. It cannot be done," said one source.
There are also doubts in the Commission as to whether destroying the entire British herd would actually kill the BSE agent, which would live on in the carcases of infected animals unless they were all cremated. Taking the meat of healthy British animals into EU funded cold storage is not a prospect either, as it would be virtually impossible to dispose of.
Germany has yet to put in place any unilateral measures, but will push hard for a Europe-wide ban, the government in Bonn said yesterday, and its influence will be pivotal.
"On the basis of the new information, the aim must be to secure a general export ban from Britain for beef, beef products, offal, animal meal and raw materials for pharmaceuticals and cosmetics in the European Union," the German agriculture and health ministries declared in a joint statement yesterday. "The measures must ensure that such products cannot be imported via a third country."
Germany, where consumer panic over mad cow disease has always been highest, warned its EU partners as long ago as 1994 that it did not believe Britain's claim that there was no link between the cattle brain condition and CJD in humans. A German health ministry report, submitted to the Commission in March 1994, stated: "The possibility can no longer be ruled out that the disease might be transmissible to humans."
The report continued: "Reports of suspected cases of CJD in fairly young people in the UK give good reason for concern. If, as with, AIDS the significance of the BSE problem is realised too late this may have grave consequences, proving fatal for virtually incalculable numbers of victims."
If this scenario materialised, the report warned, the issue of state liability had to be raised - meaning the Government could be liable to compensate victims.