LONDON — BRITAIN'S beef industry is facing ruin.
Government-appointed scientists have asserted that infected cattle are likely to have caused the deaths of at least 10 people and that the lives of tens of thousands more could be at risk.
Their comments, in a special report to the Cabinet, have triggered a massive food scare, with countries as far afield as Singapore and New Zealand deciding to refuse to import beef from Britain.
Amid fears that the country's entire herd of 11 million cattle may have to be slaughtered, most members of the 15-nation European Union on Friday unilaterally banned imports of beef from the United Kingdom, and British consumers began switching to other types of meat. On Saturday, McDonald's, which has 660 restaurants in Britain, said it was ceasing to use British beef and switching to imports from the Netherlands.
Economic analysts say the beef scare could cause a full-blown economic and political crisis. "The government's budget strategy will be blown off course," says William Keegan, author of several books about the British economy.
"There are likely to be major consequences for the pound, the balance of payments, and public sector borrowing," he adds.
Agriculture Minister Douglas Hogg, under mounting pressure from farmers facing ruin to come up with a government cash compensation scheme, conceded Saturday that there was "a great deal of anxiety" but attempted to argue that "British beef can be eaten with confidence."
At the heart of the crisis is a study by a team of scientists, published last week, suggesting that cattle suffering from a fatal disease had apparently passed on a similar affliction to humans who later died.
As scientists worked to assess the crisis, there were reports the EU was poised to impose a total ban on beef from British cattle. That would "wipe out our beef industry, which is worth 3 billion [$4.5 billion] a year," said a spokesman for Britain's National Farmers' Union.
For the past decade the government has acknowledged the existence in some herds of so-called mad-cow syndrome and has had a policy of selective slaughtering of affected animals. But until now it has always claimed there was no scientific evidence that humans put themselves in danger by eating beef. That claim now has been shattered by the scientists' report.
Butchers and supermarkets around Britain began removing beef from their shelves, and hundreds of schools said they were dropping beef products from their lunch menus.
"The key question" the government has to answer is "why it failed to act sooner" to prevent meat from infected animals entering the food chain, says Sheila McKechnie, director of the Consumers' Association in London.
Commentators have pointed to the irony of British beef, of all foods, falling under suspicion. "From the 18th century, beef has been more than a staple foodstuff; it has been central to Britain's self-definition," said The London Times in an editorial Saturday. "Sunday lunch will be a melancholy mealtime as Britons recognize it will never be glad, confident carving again."