Major beefburger retailers such as Grand Metropolitan-owned Burger King and McDonald's could soon be forced to lift their ban on British beef because the imported product is already regarded by many consumers as less safe.
The burger specialists outlawed home-killed beef at the height of the panic which swept the UK after Health Secretary Stephen Dorrell's announcement on links between BSE and a new variant of CJD on March 20.
But now that the dust is settling more consumers are recognising that the risk of contracting CJD is historical and almost certainly confined to people who ate poor quality beefburgers containing tissue from BSE-infected brain and spinal cord before the ban on the use of specified bovine offals (SBOs) was introduced in 1989.
At the same time, public awareness of the level of unreported BSE elsewhere in the European Union is increasing.
More people accept that because SBO controls are exclusive to the UK there is a risk that burgers and other beef products made from cattle killed either in Ireland or the European mainland could contain small portions of BSE-infected material.
The UK argument is that since its SBO controls were made watertight this summer there is no risk - not even a small one - of consumers being exposed to BSE.
But the burger giants have stuck rigidly to their policy of using only imported beef.
Although the Netherlands, Germany and Ireland remain regular sources it is known that French beef has been dropped by at least one chain because of fears that BSE among French cows is significantly under-reported. And meat industry analysts suspect that if Burger King or McDonald's do not quickly tell their customers they consider home-killed beef to be totally safe and lift their ban they will soon be forced to concede they have been importing a less secure product and risk losing sales because they have re-instated British beef under pressure.
The Ministry of Agriculture has already complained to a committee of inquiry set up by the European Parliament that BSE in other EU countries is under-reported. Its suspicions are focused on France and the Netherlands.
According to its assistant chief vet, Kevin Taylor, there should have been around 1,650 cases in exported UK cattle but only a handful have been drawn to the attention of the authorities. There are deep suspicions in France and other countries that large numbers of native animals also caught BSE from meat and bonemeal exported from the UK. Switzerland,considered to have reacted honestly to BSE infection imported at the same time, has confirmed 231 cases - 68 this year. French farmers have reported 24 in total.
"Our view is that exposure to BSE is historical and because of the way home-killed beef is now supervised the material on sale in this country is the safest in the world. Some of the food industry sceptics in this country already accept this," said a source. "It is extremely likely that large numbers of consumers will soon recognise this too and if the big burger retailers suddenly move back to the domestic product because their sales are beginning to nosedive they could blow their reputations."