Fearful Britain loses appetite for beef Traditional fare is shunned in scare over 'mad cow disease'

March 22, 1996|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON -- Pedro Albano is usually a Big Mac kind of guy, but yesterday he wandered into a McDonald's and opted for a vegetable patty served on a roll.

"I want to eat a vegetable, I don't want to be one," Mr. Albano said. "Right now, it's moo beef is out."

Mr. Albano is among thousands of British consumers who are steering clear of beef in the wake of Wednesday's admission by the British government that the fatal "mad cow disease" could be transmitted to humans.

The announcement triggered a food panic that reached the European continent. France and Belgium slapped bans yesterday on British beef, as did Sweden, Portugal and the Netherlands. Germany called on the European Union to stop Britain from exporting beef.

In Britain, Health Secretary Stephen Dorrell said that slaughtering the country's 11 million cattle is "one of the options."

But Agriculture Minister Douglas Hogg quickly countered that mass slaughter was not being planned.

"If the scientific committee came forward with such a recommendation, we would have to look at it. But they haven't," Mr. Hogg told the British Broadcasting Corp.

The government revealed Wednesday that 10 cases of a new strain of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease could have been caused by eating British beef infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), known as "mad cow disease."

Eight of the victims have died and two were near death, the Department of Health said.

For nearly a decade, the government had maintained that there was no link between the diseases. Mr. Dorrell said there remained "no scientific proof" that BSE can be transmitted to humans.

Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease is a rare degenerative disease that leaves sponge-like holes in the human brain. The disease has an incubation period of five to 15 years, and there is no known cure.

A leading microbiologist said Britain could see a rapid rise in the disease, with 5,000 to 500,000 cases a year recorded in the next century.

The United States stopped importing beef and beef products from Britain in 1989.

"There are no plants licensed or certified in the United Kingdom to ship products here," said Mark Armentrout, chairman of the international marketing committee for the Washington-based trade group that represents beef producers. "It ["mad cow disease"] is not an issue in the United States.

"We do not have the problem in the U.S.," he said, "or import beef from countries that do."

"Mad cow" scares have been an on-again, off-again part of British life since the disease was identified in 1986. Some scientists believe that the disease was triggered by feeding cattle the remains of infected sheep, a practice stopped in 1988.

This week's scare appears to be far more serious.

Beef is part of Britain's traditional fare, from overcooked Sunday roasts to steak and kidney pies.

But Britain's $3 billion a year beef industry has been struggling to maintain its market share. Beef consumption in Britain has dropped by 25 percent per person in the past 15 years.

Given the latest news, industry experts say, a plunge in consumption is likely.

Yesterday, many schools in Britain pulled beef off menus, joining hundreds of others who have banished the red meat from their cafeterias in recent months.

A scientific advisory panel may issue guidelines this weekend on feeding beef and beef products to children.

Major supermarket chains and fast-food outlets tried to calm consumers. One supermarket promised to publish a list of meat-free products.

Cattlemen at the Banbury market outside London, the largest in Europe, saw prices for steers drop by up to 20 percent.

The news was so riveting that it forced producers of the decades-old radio serial "The Archers" to rerecord last night's episode to give the fictional farmers of Ambridge a chance to air their views on the panic.

Londoners were not rushing to queue up at their local butchers'.

"In the last two days, everyone who has come in has asked, 'What about the beef?' " said Mark Wormald, who operates a butcher shop in Kensington. "I don't think the scare will last too long. At least, I hope it doesn't."

One of his customers, Ana Hensley, said she hasn't eaten beef in six months, preferring instead cuts of lamb and chicken.

"I even opened up the freezer and threw out all the meat pies," she said. "They say this disease will only affect a small group of people. Well, my life is the only one I have. I am not taking any chances."

At the Cock Tavern in the huge Smithfield meat market, the attitude was that "mad cow" fears are for wimps. Up to 10 people a day belly up for what is advertised as "the ultimate challenge, Britain's biggest steak," a 40-ounce Scottish rib steak.

"If you eat that steak, you get a free bottle of wine," said tavern owner Mike Callaghan. "English rugby players tackle that dish."

Mr. Callaghan said prime cuts of beef are safe enough for his children. But he won't let them eat ground beef in hamburgers and meat pies.

"Our business is actually better," Mr. Callaghan said. "People whose wives won't buy beef are coming in here.

"My customers don't need convincing about eating beef. They reckon, 'If there's a problem, well, it's too late anyway.' "

Pub Date: 3/22/96

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