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The opposition Labor Party on Saturday claimed that contaminated feed, which has been blamed for mad cow disease, is still reaching cattle.

As a government-ordered slaughter of cows began in an effort to restore confidence in British beef, a Labor party official said killing thousands of older cattle may not get rid of the disease.The ruling party's agriculture spokesman, Gavin Strang, told the British Broadcasting Corp. he was convinced the main cause of bovine spongiform encephalopathy in cows born since 1988 was contaminated cattle feed, not cows passing the disease to their offspring.

"There is no doubt," Strang said, "that the feed is the major cause, if not the only cause. We have really got to get to the bottom of this.

He called for an investigation and greater efforts to identify how BSE is transmitted.

Agriculture Minister Tony Baldry accused Labor of hyping the issue and said he didn't believe an inquiry was necessary.

The beef crisis began March 20, when Britain announced that mad cow disease "most likely" was the cause of a strain of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease that has killed at least 10 Britons.

Since then a worldwide ban on British beef exports has been imposed and beef prices here have plummeted.

BSE is believed to have entered British herds in 1986, after cattle feed was supplemented with sheep offal infected with another brain-wasting disease, scrapie.

Using sheep offal in cattle feed is now banned.

But Strang said that two-thirds of cows diagnosed with BSE in the first three months of this year were born after the official ban. Nearly 27,000 cattle born since the ban was imposed in 1988 have contracted BSE.

Sir David Naish, president of the National Farmers' Union, said there is no doubt that animals born after the ban that contracted mad cow disease "have nearly without doubt been exposed to contaminated feed."

But he said he did not believe an inquiry was necessary.