YOU won't find beef on too many tables in Britain this Sunday. Nor, I suspect will many parents be rushing to buy their children burgers if they ever get around to making the connection between the bland little patty of meat between two tasteless buns and the animal known as the cow. The public is now panicking about the meat which for so long symbolised British cooking. All of a sudden Britons, who have known about mad cow disease, or BSE, for years, are terrified that this horrific affliction which drives a cow mad - leaving it staggering around deranged - could be passed on to humans. Beef sales continue to drop. Last weekend the Sunday Times conducted a poll of scientists and most said they would not go near British beef these days. A widely-viewed television programme a few days earlier claimed that 600 BSE-infected cows were eaten each week. Nobody disputes that there are many thousands of these beasts infected with the disease in Britain. Nobody is sure how many because farmers, not surprisingly, do not advertise the fact, or are often unaware of their beasts' infection. Some working in the Ministry of Agriculture admit many times more animals have the disease than they dare even contemplate. Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, as we should call mad cow disease, is thought to have spread from the unsavoury, indeed disgusting, habit of feeding cattle - natural herbivores - on the ground-up offal of dead infected cattle. But because it has a lengthy development time it has proved impossible to bring the disease into check. It infects parts of the animal's spinal cord, and given the fact that machines tear off every last cell of meat from bones nowadays, it has got into meat products like sausages and pies. The reason behind the panic now is, although the government insists there is no connection between Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy and the similar phenomenon Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) in humans, most scientists believe there could be. Recent research on the incidence of the highly distressing Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease found there were incidences among farmers and teenagers which were difficult to explain by chance, but which could be more rationally explained by them having eaten infected beef. There were only 55 cases last year which seems tiny, but the number is rising. The government instituted a ban on contaminated feeds some years ago, but the decline in BSE following the move has been slower than expected, suggesting it can be passed from mother to offspring. The Ministry of Agriculture proclaims: 'There is no evidence that BSE can infect humans.' But of course there can be no such evidence yet because the disease takes so long to develop and manifest itself. It also proclaims: 'Don't worry about BSE: we kill every infected animal.' Again this is not the whole truth. They kill off every visibly infected animal. The Government denies the disease can spread from one species, cattle, to another, humans. But this flies in the face of the evidence. Some sheep diseases are easily passed on to goats, for instance. A strain of the sheep disease, scrapie, is thought to have been behind the original outbreak of BSE in cows. HUNDREDS of schools have taken beef, in all its forms, off the menu this week. The price of beef is plummeting. Small butchers, already hit by in-house butchery departments in out of town supermarkets, are complaining they could go out of business in their hundreds. The BBC has even run a confidential telephone help-line on mad cow disease, which caused a furore when it went beyond its brief and advised callers to stop using any form of beef product, including the stock drink Bovril. That enraged the drink's manufacturers who pointed out they used Argentine beef and there is no BSE there. Government ministers have been visiting meat markets eating pies and no doubt a good few steaks as well. But one of Britain's leading authorities on brain disease, Sir Bernard Tomlinson, says he will no longer eat hamburgers or meat pies because they might contain BSE-infected offal. It is of course a 'no win situation'. The Government cannot prove the veracity of its case and nor can those who would have us stop eating beef. Nonetheless it is a wonderful excuse never to have to eat another burger again.