British ban begets bone-in beef boom Binge: Sales of beef on the bone soar after the British government announces plans to order all beef deboned to prevent mad cow disease.

December 06, 1997|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON -- Want a sure-fire way to increase sales of beef on the bone?

Try to ban it.

That seems to be the latest lesson of Britain's struggle with "mad cow" disease.

T-bone steaks, ox tails and rib roasts have been cuts of choice at local butcher shops ever since Wednesday, when the British government announced an impending ban on beef on the bone.

The ban may not take effect until January after legislation is passed.

But meanwhile, British consumers succumbed to a wave of panic buying.

"I've sold more beef on the bone in the last three days than I had in the last three weeks," said Mark Wormald, who runs a London butcher shop.

"I had one guy come in, and ask for a T-bone steak. I hadn't sold one of those for a month.

"A lady came in, she needed a rib of beef to stick in the freezer for Christmas," he said. "A lot of English just want British beef."

Government scientists say there is a "very small risk" that bovine spongiform encephalopathy could enter the human foodchain through bone marrow.

Scientists projected that only six cows due for slaughter this year might be infected and only three out of 2.2 million due for slaughter next year.

The government didn't want to take any chances, though.

More than 20 Britons have died from a new strain of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, the human equivalent of mad cow disease.

In March 1996, the government first admitted there could be a link between the brain-wasting ailments, triggering a mad cow scare.

Exotic substitutes

The European Union banned the sale of British beef overseas, and some British consumers switched to imported goods or exotic substitutes such as kangaroo meat.

"Slowly, in the past few months, people came back to eating beef," Wormald said.

"With the first scare, I thought it would be devastating for the farm and butcher industry.

"But I don't think that way now. It seems that the British will stick behind their product."

Yet even as British consumers transformed the latest scare into a buying binge, British farmers tried to blockade ports to prevent cheaper Irish beef from entering the market.

The Irish government said yesterday that beef on the bone should be withdrawn from sale.

Police made two arrests in Dover. There were other peaceful protests at ports in Wales and Scotland.

"We fully understand the distress and difficulties of farmers, and we have been working to assist them," British Prime Minister Tony Blair said.

"It is essential, however, that the rule of law must be upheld."

Blair said the government was following the lead of the scientists in proposing the ban.

Investigation expected

The new Labor government is expected to announce a full-scale inquiry into mad cow disease soon.

"If government is given such strong evidence, then I am sure that we would have been criticized if we had not acted so properly," Blair said.

The ban has been derided by chefs trying to create beef stock, and beef lovers who simply like the taste of juicy red meat on the bone.

The Sun of London newspaper headlined one story: "You've got more of a chance of being hit by a meteorite than dying from eating T-bone steak."

Matthew Fort, food editor for the Guardian, joked that the ban could create a "Mooing Nineties" to rival America's prohibition-era "Roaring Twenties."

"Illicit beef speakeasies will spring up in every town and village, serving the forbidden protein," he wrote.

"Word will go round: 'The ox-tail's just in,' or 'There's been a special delivery of fore-rib. Roasting tonight.' "

Pub Date: 12/06/97

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