COLIN BROWN and SARAH HELM
Douglas Hogg last night angrily defended his handling of the BSE beef crisis and condemned Britain's European partners for not lifting the world- wide ban on the export of British beef that threatens thousands of jobs.
The Minister for Agriculture returned to the Commons after a humiliating failure to secure EU agreement to lift the ban at a marathon meeting of European ministers in Luxembourg.
Britain was told that it would have to take more radical action to get the ban lifted when the ministers next meet on 29 April. The Government has agreed to slaughter 4.5 million cows aged over 30 months when they have ceased production. This could take six years.
In a desperate attempt to restore consumer confidence, none of the condemned beef will be allowed into the food chain. Mr Hogg conceded he may be forced to go further by ordering the selective slaughter of productive herds to meet the European demands for the immediate slaughter of herds with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). That could mean destroying a further 1 million cows, threatening milk production. Ministers are seeking ways of reducing the impact.
Cattle carcasses will be stored until they can be destroyed in incinerators. An extra 30 incinerators may be needed and Mr Hogg is working on the options with the Secretary of State for the Environment, John Gummer. But officials dismissed reports that beef could be burned as fuel in power stations. The Government has also been forced into a U-turn by accepting retailers' demands for a quality assurance scheme - probably with a kite mark - to reassure customers that beef is from BSE-free herds.
Mr Hogg was accused by Gavin Strang, Labour's spokesman on agriculture, of returning with a deal which was the "worst of all possible worlds".
The anger of Tory MPs was deflected towards Britain's European partners, but John Major and Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister, sat beside Mr Hogg to try to shore up his position in the Cabinet. Senior Tory MPs were privately predicting that Mr Hogg would be sacked in the next reshuffle.
Meanwhile, officials in Brussels suggested the Government's failure to produce convincing BSE eradication measures at the Luxembourg farm council have probably set back the chances of lifting the export ban by several weeks.
n World medical, scientific and veterinary experts said yesterday that there is "minimal" risk of "mad cow disease" being passed to humans - as long as strict abattoir procedures are followed, writes Charles Arthur. They also said milk, milk products and gelatine pose no risk.
The backing will be seen as a vindication by the British government in its attempt to get the EU ban on British beef exports lifted, on the grounds that there is no exceptional risk to health. But the experts declined to discuss the ban after their two-day closed session.
The conference was called by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and brought 30 experts from the UK, US and various European countries to Geneva, Switzerland. They discussed evidence, first revealed just two weeks ago, that BSE might have caused the deaths of 10 Britons in the past two years from what appears to be a new strain of the degenerative brain condition, Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD). They also examined whether any further measures should be taken.
"The risks will be minimal if the recommendations of this meeting are accepted and implemented by governments," said David Heymann, director of the WHO's division of emerging diseases.
The conference recommended banning from the human or animal food chain any parts of any cow that had shown signs of possible BSE. The meeting also called for a ban on the use of animal brains, spinal cord and eye retinas, which are the body parts where BSE is thought to take hold, from reprocessing for use in fodder for cattle and other animals.
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