The question is not whether we burn cattle, but how many and how soon

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The Government stands on the edge of an abyss in public confidence. This is not just a question of measuring the immediate threat to public health, nor the fate of farmers and butchers. The BSE affliction is in danger of contaminating the British body politic.

A completely reliable, accurate account of the dangers posed to human health remains elusive. That, however, does not justify complacency. The risk of catastrophe is sufficiently large to justify bold mobilisation of all the Government's resources.

Consumers are beyond bland reassurance. We need the kind of honesty that accepts what we know is limited but on the basis of what we do know, here is a rescue plan that carries real conviction. This is a time for careful judgment but it is no time for irresolute caution.

More than half the population is considering not buying beef; not because of panic, but because it seems the most sane course of action, on present information. If people do stop buying in large numbers, the industry is heading for a collapse that will rock everything from public finances to the shape of rural England. Public policy needs to stay ahead, forecasting the need for compensation, incineration, waste disposal. The Government should announce a plan to accomplish two things.

One is longer term. It is for restructuring the food and agricultural businesses. Consumer choice will probably effect radical change during the next few years. Government needs to play its part by, for example, replacing the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

The other requirement is immediate: it involves removing from the food chain all cattle that may have eaten contaminated feed. If that means slaughtering all cattle that have not been grass-fed throughout their lives, so be it.

If, in practice, it means wholesale slaughter, is there now any alternative? The cattle are liable to end up being slaughtered, because no one wants to buy them. The consequences of widespread incineration of the herd are huge. The consequences of inaction could be calamitous.