Wimpy puts British beef on menu

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The Independent Online
Farmers received some rare good news yesterday when the Wimpy fast-food chain said it would put British beef back on the menu. It was removed after the start of the BSE ("mad-cow") crisis five weeks ago.

But the Government culling scheme, designed to restore faith in British beef, failed to get under way yesterday, with farmers and slaughterhouse operators accusing ministers of presiding over a farce. Destruction of 21,000 cattle a week as part of efforts to eradicate BSE from British herds had been due to start yesterday after being postponed from Monday. Confusion over the scheme to remove animals aged over 30 months from the food chain led to allegations in the Commons yesterday that the Government was inept.

Tony Blair, the Labour leader, said the measures, introduced by Douglas Hogg, the Agriculture Minister, had led to confusion and appeared "pretty inept".

John Major said detailed information would be sent today to farmers, but Labour leaders said the confusion increased the impression of the Government having lost its grip in the crisis. In an attempt to reassert his authority, Mr Major yesterday signalled that the Government was considering a show of anger by calling in ambassadors of European Union countries to protest if the EU refuses to lift the export ban on British beef.

Welcoming the move by Wimpy, Mr Major told MPs he would consider the call by Sir Cranley Onslow - one of the Tory MPs who sent a joint protest to the ambassadors on Wednesday - for the diplomats to be called in to hear British protests if the ban were not lifted next week.

Ministers said last night there would be intolerable pressure on the Government if the meeting of agriculture ministers on Tuesday failed to lift the ban. There would be overwhelming expectations of action, and calling in the ambassadors would have widespread support.

Cabinet ministers reviewed possible action at a short meeting but Cabinet sources said there would be no "marching up the hill" again with renewed threats of counter-measures after the debacle last week.

Ministers appear to feel frustrated at their impotence, and the British action in the European Court is not seen as a quick remedy.

Paul Gentry, who runs Britain's second-largest prime beef cattle market at Newark, Nottinghamshire, said the culling scheme was "an absolute farce. We have no idea what is going on. I have no starting date for the scheme. I am bending over backwards to try and understand the logistics of this scheme.

"We have no idea of how we are going to be paid. We have no idea of how we are going to be able to pay the producer. It is just a monumental cock- up."

Peter Bowyer, a slaughterhouse operator from Hatherleigh, near Okehampton, Devon, said: "This has been mismanaged. Nobody seems to know what is going on ... We are ready ... to slaughter 400-500 cattle a day but cannot do anything until we know there is somewhere for the carcasses to go.