TIME and again, ever since the "Mad Cow" disease epidemic in British cattle broke out, ministers have assured us that we could not catch it from eating beef.

Each time a fresh doubt was aired, they poured scorn on it. Media scaremongering, they said.

And epitomising this attitude were stunts like that of then-Agriculture Secretary John Gummer's notorious attempt in front of the cameras in 1990 to feed a beefburger to his four-year-old daughter and the House of Commons "eat-in" of raw steak by back-bench Tories.

Yet, what now - now that a new strain of the human form of BSE, or Mad Cow disease, is identified by government advisers, with ten young people dying from it in the past two years and the conclusion is that eating BSE-infected beef could be to blame?

There is, we are told by the government's chief medical officer, a cause for serious concern.

Indeed, there is - when we now hear from an East Lancashire microbiologist ,who is an expert in the BSE epidemic and its human form, the dreadful, deadly Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, that it is possible that 10million people could be struck down by CJD by 2010.

That, of course, is an outright worst-case estimate - a nightmare they may never come true.

What is known, however, is that, so far, the number of cases of this killer disease are very few indeed. And though it is impossible to predict how many more there could be in future, the extreme rareness of the illness so far must temper our fears.

Nonetheless, what is less easy to dismiss is the fact that, no matter how great or small the CJD timebomb may prove to be, its existence has been contributed to by the bland reassurances - larded with these arrogant and airy we-know-best stunts - hitherto given us by the government about the safety of beef.

But why were they at such pains to do that - when greater caution might have been the wiser and more correct response to strong anecdotal evidence and the string of repeated scares over BSE?

Our suspicion is that, in order to protect a wealthy farming lobby and a powerful beef industry, the government has offered less protection than it might to the public in terms of caution and measured advice.

In the light of the disclosure now that there is a probable link between Mad Cow disease and CJD, they have already much to account for on that score. And they will have hell to pay, even if only a fraction of the fears of millions of people for the future are realised.

The time for tightrope-walking between the interests of the farmers and butchers and those of the public is up now.

The government must give a cast-iron guarantee that all beef is safe. And if it cannot, it must admit it cannot. Then consumers can decide - as many already have, believing that the government's advice just cannot be trusted.

And in the light of dreadful fear now incubating in Britain, can you blame them?

Converted for the new archive on 14 July 2000. Some images and formatting may have been lost in the conversion.