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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Major Reconsiders a Cattle Slaughter

LONDON -- British Prime Minister John Major said Tuesday he would consider whether some of Britain's cattle should be slaughtered to allay fears of "mad cow" disease, just a day after ministers had ruled out the idea. Major spoke after the influential National Farmers' Union sent a letter to the government calling on it to restore public confidence in beef by setting up a special scheme to ensure older cows did not enter the human food chain.

"I and my colleagues will study the contents of that letter very carefully," Major told parliament, saying the move was not necessary on scientific grounds but might have to be accepted to restore consumer confidence in beef.

The proposal by the National Farmers' Union, or NFU, is aimed at quieting public alarm over the suspected link between "mad cow disease," Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy or BSE, and its human equivalent, Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease.

"It is vital to restore confidence in consumers not just in the U.K. but also throughout Europe and the rest of the world," said NFU president Sir David Naish.

Government plans to brave out the crisis were dealt another blow when European Union veterinary officials reaffirmed their call for a ban on British beef exports because of BSE.

Belgian Agriculture Minister Karel Pinxten said a cull of some of Britain's cattle was probably inevitable. British ministers said last week they had considered slaughtering the country's entire herd of 11 million cattle.

Earlier on Tuesday, British Health Secretary Stephen Dorrell betrayed signs of exasperation over the impact of the row over BSE.

"It isn't the cows that are mad, it's the people that are going mad," said Dorrell.

He said that measures introduced since 1989 had prevented BSE-contaminated material from entering the human food chain. It would be "a grotesque waste of resources" to carry out a mass slaughter of cattle.

But commercial confidence in British beef continued to slump. British Airways announced Tuesday it was banning domestically produced beef while food manufacturer Birds Eye suspended beefburger production at a plant in eastern England.

Under the proposed NFU scheme, dairy cattle and those used to suckle calves would not be slaughtered until they came to the end of their useful lives.

Then their carcasses would not be used for meat and their offal and other organs could be incinerated, said NFU policy director Ian Gardiner. Consumers worldwide have spurned British beef since government scientists revealed last week that 10 Britons had died from a new strain of the human equivalent of BSE, probably contracted from eating beef.

Dorrell criticized burger chains such as McDonald's and Burger King for turning away from British beef.

"What I think they should be doing is making it available to their customers on the basis of the evidence that they themselves accept that it is a safe product," he said.

Scientists who discovered a likely link between mad cow disease and Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease said the victims of the new strain of the disease had probably contracted it before 1989. On Monday, they said they had found two more suspected cases.