LONDON (AP) _ Responding to growing fears of the deadly mad cow disease, Ireland's biggest supermarket chain and Britain's Wimpy fast-food chain banned British beef today.

Government officials met with scientific advisers to agree on new guidelines on the risks to humans from mad cow disease. Expectations rose that millions of cattle would be slaughtered.

Health Secretary Steven Dorrell was to make a statement in parliament later today.

More than 20 nations and McDonald's, the biggest hamburger chain in Britain, have banned British beef since the government acknowledged Wednesday that the cattle disease is the most likely source of a similar brain disease that has struck 10 young Britons. At least eight people have died.

Government statistics released today showed 161,663 confirmed cases of the disease, known formally as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, in British cattle since 1986 _ more than 400 times more cases than the rest of the world combined. Switzerland, the next worst affected, had 205 cases.

The disease is attributed to British farmers feeding cattle with sheep offal contaminated with a brain-wasting disease, scrapie. The use of sheep offal as feed was banned in 1989.

Wimpy said today it has stopped serving beef in its 270 British outlets and will resume on Thursday with imported supplies.

``We have no scientific reason at all to do it,'' Wimpy managing director Max Wolfenden said of his ban. ``I still think British beef is an excellent product, but I'm not enforcing my view on our customers.''

Ireland's Quinnsworth-Crazy Prices supermarket chain said it has removed all British beef products from its shelves. The chain has 75 stores and one-quarter of the Irish market.

Fears of mad cow disease have driven beef off many menus in Britain and badly damaged the export market.

All Britain's major supermarkets report a slump in sales, and McDonald's said over the weekend that it is switching to foreign beef in its 660 British restaurants.

On London's financial markets, the pound fell early today on worries about the economic implications of the scare. When markets opened, it was down 1 1/2 pfennigs against the German mark and down nearly a cent against the dollar.

The main opposition Labor Party accused the government of mishandling the crisis since BSE broke out a decade ago.

``All along the government have delayed and given false reassurances,'' Harriet Harman, the party's health spokeswoman, said today. ``They took years before they made the disease notifiable in cattle.''

``They've been driven by a narrow protectionism of farmers and the dogma of deregulation,'' Harman said. ``That has put both the consumer and the producers at risk and caused a crisis of public confidence.''

In Brussels, a meeting of European Union veterinary officials may decide today to impose a blanket ban on British beef. Thirteen of the 15 EU members, including the biggest customers, France and Italy, have already banned the meat.

A panel of 13 scientists who advise the government met over the weekend to consider what to do next. They made no announcement before meeting with government officials today.

The government has indicated it will follow the experts' proposals, even if they call for the mass slaughter of cattle likely to carry the disease.

New Zealand today suspended the import of genetic material from British cattle and sheep.

The country imports small quantities of bovine semen and embryos from Britain, and no live animals. It already has suspended imports of British cooked and canned meats, gelatin and meat pastes.