29 March 1996

BSE: Cull cow disposal plan reviewed by Major

By Shelley Wright

GOVERNMENT is considering plans for further action, including the removal of cull cows from the food chain, to restore consumer confidence in British beef.

Prime Minister John Major conceded such a move was necessary on Tuesday after he received a letter from NFU leader Sir David Naish, also sent to Opposition leaders, outlining the NFUs cattle disposal initiative.

The urgency of further action was made clear on Wednesday when the EU Commission confirmed a decision to temporarily ban all UK beef exports world wide.

After a meeting with food, manufacturing, catering and retail representatives on Monday night the NFU decided cattle over 30 months old, going for slaughter must be kept out of the human food chain. The move was backed by the Country Landowners Association and opposition agriculture spokesmen.

In a bitter Commons exchange Mr Major told MPs there were "two reasons for proceeding in the way that Sir David recommends". The first was on public health grounds – if science recommends it. But science did not recommend it.

The second was if it proved necessary to restore confidence to the market.

Quizzed by MPs on Wednesday farm minister Douglas Hogg refused to give unequivocal backing to the NFU policy. He said he had to consider what steps were needed to reassure consumers and the EU which had imposed a worldwide ban on British beef.

"We are looking at what further steps we should contemplate and there are a range of options. But we must conclude our own view before going public," he said.

Mr Hogg declined to say when any measures to help the stricken industry might be announced. A Whitehall source later said a range of plans would be taken to a Cabinet meeting on Thursday, and proposals would then be taken to Brussels.

Mr Hogg stressed there was no scientific advice for new measures, but agreed that consumer confidence had to be addressed.

&#8226 MPs on a health and agriculture select committee were told of US developments that could lead to a live test for BSE and CJD. Government chief vet, Keith Meldrum, said tissue samples had been sent to America but no results were yet available. And Dr Robert Will of the CJD surveillance unit in Edinburgh said he was also investigating a live test developed in this country by Dr Harash Narang.

Mr Meldrum told MPs concerned over abattoir practice that spot checks were continuing and improvements had been made. But there had been four cases this year where pieces of spinal cord had not been removed from carcasses.

&#8226 Cattle over 30 months at slaughter to be kept out of human food chain.

&#8226 Would involve about 800,000 cattle a year

&#8226 Compensation bill about £700m a year.

NFU also wants immediate introduction of:

&#8226 EU calf slaughter scheme.

&#8226 Intervention buying to clear surplus beef stocks.