Beef fiasco just another humiliation for Britons Even English cricket team is lousy now roast beef

April 07, 1996|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON -- Humiliation. In Great Britain, it's the word of the moment as a nation tries to come to terms with the collapse of its $6.5 billion beef industry in the wake of the "mad cow" disease scare.

Farmers are furious, slaughterhouses are empty and restaurants are filling their menus with items like kangaroo and ostrich. But the biggest problem is that British beef exports are still banned to every country in the world.

British beef remains off the world menu until the European Union lifts the export ban it imposed March 27. And that blockade may not end for a month or more as Britain fashions a plan for the compulsory slaughter of animals most likely to have been exposed to bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), also known as "mad cow" disease.

Until they divulge their program, the British are left pretty much on their own. And a lot of their political leaders are furious.

Douglas Hogg, the embattled agriculture minister, has called the ban "unjustified" and "not based on scientific analysis."

But Gavin Strong, Labor's shadow agriculture minister, puts the blame for the ban on the ruling Conservatives. "Once again, a weak government that is isolated in Europe has completely failed to represent Britain's interests in Europe," he said.

And few items are as dear to a Briton's heart as is beef. When people talk of a Sunday roast, they mean only one thing: roast beef.

The meat remains a symbol of Britain's past, when its empire spanned the globe. But, like a lot of things here, from a lousy English cricket team to a frayed health-care system, British beef has now become another symbol of a country's decline.

On the one hand, Britain has a marketing problem. The government is trying to persuade consumers that British beef poses no extraordinary health risks, despite the revelation that 10 young Britons afflicted with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease may have been made ill by "mad cow" disease.

It's hard to tell exactly what the impact has been in Britain.

Recent polls show that few Britons believe their government when it comes to beef.

Nearly three out of four people polled for the Guardian newspaper believed the government "knew BSE was a risk before the present scare and tried to hide it."

The same poll of 1,011 adults claimed the number of people prepared to eat beef has dropped from 60 percent of the population to 32 percent. British fast-food franchises are continuing to import beef from other countries.

But supermarkets around the country report that sales of beef have stabilized, and in some cases, now exceed pre-crisis levels, all because of huge price decreases.

Yet price alone won't bring British beef back to the world market. To do that, Britain must convince its 14 European Union partners that British beef is safe. And that's where politics plays a role.

For years, a "Euro-skeptical" wing of the Conservative Party has railed against what it sees as a loss of British sovereignty to "European Union bureaucrats" in Brussels, Belgium, where the EU has its headquarters.

On issues ranging from fishing rights to metric weights and measures, the "Euro-skeptics" claim that Britain has given up too much for the good of an economic union. These same skeptics now blame the Europeans for piling on during the beef crisis.

The price to bring British beef back on to the world market could be steep. Less than two weeks ago, the government said there was no need to slaughter cattle over 30 months old that could have been exposed to contaminated feed.

But Wednesday, the British caved in to European pressure and presented plans for a selective slaughter of up to 4.6 million older cattle.

That translates to about 15,000 cows a week for the next six years. The European Commission offered to pay British farmers 70 percent in compensation for the slaughtered cattle, with Britain paying 30 percent. Britain also will have to pay for disposing of the carcasses. The entire slaughter program could run over $7 billion.

Still, the deal wasn't good enough to persuade Britain's European partners to lift the export ban. The British have until April 30 to come up with an even more comprehensive plan to slaughter BSE-infected herds.

Pub Date: 4/07/96

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