CHILDREN should stop eating beef now in a bid to cut the risk of a major "mad cow" epidemic in humans during the next 20 years, an East Lancashire medical expert warned today.

The development came as Health Secretary Stephen Dorrell admitted that the slaughter of Britain's 11 million cattle could be considered in a final bid to wipe out BSE.

Meanwhile worried farmers and butchers tried to reassure meat eaters amidst fears that trade will be hit hard.

Stephen Dealler, a consultant microbiologist at Burnley General Hospital, issued the "don't eat it" message in the wake of new evidence of a possible link between BSE and humans.

He predicted up to 10 million people could be struck down by the human form of BSE by 2010.

"It's too late for adults but children should not eat beef."

"There is evidence that stopping eating beef will be of value to children and until we have better knowledge on the subject to show that there isn't a risk we should assume there is one."

The Government's Chief Medical Officer Sir Kenneth Calman yesterday announced that research showed the human form of BSE was probably acquired from cattle.

It is believed that ten victims under 42 who have died of the disease were infected before new controls on cattle offal were introduced in 1989.

Sir Kenneth admitted the finds gave serious cause for concern but added that beef was safe.

The National Farmers Union is seeking an urgent meeting with the Minister of Agriculture to discuss the latest findings.

Former Lancashire chairman Trevor Rushton, from Worsthorne, predicted widespread problems for the county's farmers if consumer confidence was shaken.

He said: "Things had just started to settle down but there is a danger of another scare developing.

"But people have got to look at the facts. There is still no firm evidence that CJD can be linked to BSE. The beef you eat today is safe and I am confident BSE will be eliminated from cattle herds by the end of the century."

Lancashire education chiefs banned beef from all primary school menues in the county at the end of last year but it remains in secondary schools, where pupils have a choice of meals.

Education committee chairman Stan Wright said: "We took precautionary action in response to parental pressure and I think they were right to be worried."

Dr Dealler added: "This must be a real worry to farmers, who have been told all along that there is no risk. They have been misinformed and should demand compensation." Great Harwood Food Products said yesterday's shock Government revelation would not stop it from pursuing a High Court action to overturn a ban which prevents them producing mechanically recovered meat from cattle spinal columns.

The company said it could be forced to close with the loss of 150 jobs unless the ban was lifted.

Tom Richards, of Willows Lane, Accrington, a butcher for 30 years, said: "I treat people who come into my shop more as friends than customers and I am not going to poison my friends."

Said Peter Howarth, of P and G Howarth, butchers, of Park Road, Accrington: "The scare stories will knock trade down to rock bottom."

Buying beef from reputable butchers would safeguard meat-eaters from the danger, claimed Clitheroe butcher Stuart Kerr, of Harrison and Kerr in King Street.

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