All Boned Beef A
Potential Killer!
By Lyndsay Griffiths
LONDON, Dec 4 (Reuters) - Britain acknowledged on Thursday that the "mad cow" crisis could stretch into the next century as farmers, chefs and consumers digested the latest crisis to hit the nation's beef industry.
From oxtail to ribs, T-bone steak to stock cubes, beef on the bone was branded a potential killer even as the government insisted there was no cause for alarm.
"There is no panic, believe me," Agriculture Minister Jack Cunningham said in one of a series of broadcast interviews intended to cool the crisis. "I have always eaten beef and I shall continue to do so."
Cunningham's vocal support for beef, that most British of dishes, came one day after he stunned farmers by proposing a ban on unboned beef following scientific advice that mad cow disease could theoretically be transmitted through beef bones.
The new restriction -- 21 months after the European Union banned all exports of British beef -- could not have come at a worse time for the domestic industry.
Shoppers had only recently regained confidence in a meat that has already sent some 22 Britons to an early and ugly death, and the Christmas season is traditionally a time for meateaters to tuck in.
"What the hell CAN we eat?" asked the Mirror tabloid in a front-page headline.
Ever eager to fight their corner, farmers say they are also sinking under cheap imports as a high pound prices their beef out of the market.
Protests against imports of cheap beef from Ireland spread overnight from Wales to Scotland and England. Some 700 farmers mounted blockades of the Scottish ports of Stranraer and Cairnryan, turning back about 20 truckloads of Irish beef.
Cunningham made it clear the end was not yet in sight to the saga of mad cow disease, which helped undermine the past Conservative government and raised widespread fears about the safety of everyday foods.
He said tests would continue on other cuts until confidence was restored and cows right across the country could be declared free of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease.
"The way to finally get rid of these problems and bring lasting support to the beef industry is to eradicate BSE from the national herd altogether. We're doing everything we can to bring that about as quickly as possible," said Cunningham.
As for when meat might be utterly safe, Cunningham said: "We're likely to get down to very low levels of the incidence of BSE in a couple of years time and to eradicate it altogether by about 2001."
Cunningham, whose Conservative predecessor made his young daughter eat a burger on camera to prove his confidence in British beef, said the risk of eating infected meat was minuscule.
Small danger or large, Cunningham said it was best to come clean given there was still a five percent risk of one person contracting the brain-wasting disorder by eating beef on the bone.
"What if that person turned out to be someone in your family. Would you be content that I had done nothing about it?"
he said. "It was the right decision, the best decision, in very difficult circumstances."
Beef on the bone comprises just five percent of the market but the latest scare could hit sales of such staples as oxtail soup, beef drinks, ribs and a whole range of products containing gelatine.
Scientists believe BSE may stem from the 1980s when regulations governing cattle feed were relaxed.
Swiss Ban Sales Of Beef
On The Bone
ZURICH, Dec 4 (Reuters) - Swiss authorities said on Thursday they planned to ban the sale of beef on the bone, one day after Britain took that step to curb the "mad cow" crisis.
"We intend to separate products from the spinal column, which means no meat products with spinal bones should come onto the market," Lorenz Hess, spokesman for the Federal Health Office in Berne, told Swiss radio.
He did not say when the ban would take effect.
Switzerland has reported 35 new cases of mad cow disease so far this year, bringing the total to 265 since 1990, when Switzerland banned the use of cattle feeds containing meal made from animal remains.
Switzerland has the second highest number of mad cow cases in the world after Britain. Some 30 countries have curbs on imports of Swiss cattle and beef.
Public concern about infected beef has grown since British scientists found evidence in March 1996 that mad cow disease could be transmitted to humans as the brain-wasting Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.
British Agriculture Minister Jack Cunningham stunned farmers on Wednesday by proposing a ban on unboned beef following scientific advice that mad cow disease could theoretically be transmitted through beef bones.
The new restriction followed 21 months after the European Union banned all exports of British beef.
Cunningham said tests would continue on other cuts until confidence was restored and cows across the country could be declared free of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease.
Mad Cow Crisis Rips
British Government
By Gerrard Raven
LONDON, Dec 4 (Reuters) - The row over mad cow disease which dealt a bitter blow to Britain's last Conservative government has returned to haunt its Labour successor.
Prime Minister Tony Blair's cabinet on Thursday discussed mounting protests by cattle farmers over dwindling incomes and the likely impact of a government decision to ban sales of in-bone beef such as T-bone steaks and ribs.
Agriculture Minister Jack Cunningham reportedly told his colleagues that claims the ban he announced on Wednesday would devastate the industry were wrong since 95 percent of beef sales would be unaffected.
But newspapers and opposition politicians predicted a crippling blow to consumer confidence in beef which was just returning after the European Union banned British beef exports in March, 1996.
Opposition Conservative agriculture spokesman Michael Jack has rounded on Cunningham, telling him, "You are out of touch with farming and could not care less about the beef industry."
The Conservatives have traditionally been seen as the party of Britain's rural middle classes, with farmers and landowners having little faith in a Labour Party that was heavily influenced by industrial trade unionists.
But the mad cow crisis that hit not only farmers but abattoirs, cattle markets and small country towns tipped the balance in many rural constituencies in May's election, handing seats both to a modernised Labour and to the minority Liberal Democrats.
Farmers were particularly angry because then-Prime Minister John Major claimed to have won agreement for a lifting of the ban at a European Union summit in Florence in June last year, but it remained stubbornly in place.
They accused then agriculture minister Douglas Hogg of delaying decisions needed to get Brussels to allow exports again. As the government was seen to flounder, beef was a key issue that helped oust it from power.
But farmers' affection for Labour has never been more than skin deep, and angry demonstrations around the country this week indicated that Blair's honeymoon with rural Britain is over.
British farmers have already seen thousands of their cattle slaughtered in an attempt to eradicate the disease and persuade Brussels to lift the export ban.
The latest protests have been directed at stopping beef imports from Ireland moving through ports in western Britain, made attractive by a surging British pound.
Irish Agriculture Minister Joe Walsh was meeting Cunningham in London later on Thursday to protest at the disruption to the trade.
But Blair's spokesman indicated the government would seek to keep the Conservatives in the firing line. He said the government had agreed in principle to hold an inquiry into the history of mad cow disease in Britain.
"People want to know whether things were handled as they should have been," he said. "There are families out there who lost people and should know if that could have been avoided."
Labour accuses the Conservatives of being responsible because they relaxed controls over the composition of cattle feed which led to Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) taking hold in herds.
It was scientific evidence that people eating infected meat could develop Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease(CJD), the human form of BSE, which led to the export ban. Twenty-three people have now died of a new variant of CJD thought to be connected to BSE.
But newspapers that were inclined to give Blair's government the benefit of the doubt in its early months criticised Cunningham for having rushed out a statement on the in-bone beef ban after a veterinary committee's report revealing a slight risk in eating such products was leaked to a BBC television programme.
"This is a hopeless way to conduct government," the Daily Telegraph newspaper, traditionally a favourite read of rural Britons, said in an editorial.
British Meat Industry
Enraged Over Ban
By Susan Cornwell
LONDON, Dec 4 (Reuters) - British butchers and meat wholesalers reacted with anger and confusion on Thursday to the government's decision to ban sales of beef on the bone.
At London's Smithfield market, meatcutters and salesmen grumbled and growled at a reporter who asked what they thought about the latest ``mad cow'' crisis.
``When you ban the motor car, when you ban sex, when you ban tobacco, when you ban alcohol, then you come and talk to me about the risks of beef,'' declared Peter Martinelli, a consultant with a meat wholesaler.
``This is the safest country in the world for beef,'' he said. ``Are these scientists who know so much about this going to create an animal without the bone? Is that what they're going to do?''
Agriculture Minister Jack Cunningham stunned the beef industry on Wednesday by proposing a ban on unboned beef, following scientific advice that mad cow disease could theoretically be transmitted through beef bones.
At Smithfield, where sellers with blood-stained aprons start work long before dawn among sides of beef and pork hanging on meathooks, there was bitterness about the latest blow to an industry still reeling from the original European Union ban on British beef exports imposed in March 1996.
``It's the Germans and the French and the other Europeans criticising our beef. And why? So they can sell theirs,'' said Bob Cowan, a salesman at James Burden Ltd.
The Burden company sells only unboned beef from Botswana -- as much as 10,000 lbs (22,000 kg) of topside beef a week -- but Cowan said he was ``sick and tired'' of hearing questions about the safety of beef.
``The government lets them advertise cigarettes, and cigarettes can kill. That about sums it up,'' he said, referring to the recent government decision to exempt Forumla One motor racing from a proposed ban on tobacco sponsorship.
Trading appeared to be normal at Smithfield, including sales of beef on the bone, despite Cunningham's announcement. Sellers said there had been no government notification of any change in the law.
Keith Atwood, a meat cutter at P.W. and J.K. Killby Ltd., said Killby's had sold more than a dozen sides of beef on Thursday morning before 8 a.m. ``Obviously the butchers can take the bones out before they sell it, if they need to,'' he said.
The government acknowledged on Thursday that the beef-on-bone ban had not yet come into effect, and Cunningham said he would have to consult with the beef industry before issuing ``appropriate orders.''
Down the street from the Smithfield market, a man who gave his name only as Corrigan tucked under his arm a bulging bag of T-bones that he had just bought from the wholesaler S.C. Crosby. ``I'm getting T-bones now before they're gone,'' he said.
John Crosby, whose father owns the shop, said sales of beef-on-the-bone were actually up on Thursday morning. He spoke from behind a counter with large slabs of Scottish foreribs for sale at 3.30 pounds ($5.55) a kilogram.
``Why should we worry. The way this government works they'll probably change their mind two weeks from now,'' Crosby said.
But Fergus Henderson, chef at the nearby St. John's restaurant where Dutch veal bone marrow is on the menu, said the latest decision was a shame for cooks and diners.
``From the standpoint of cooking and eating, it's a blow,'' he said. ``The bone's pretty fundamental to the flavour of meat.''
Henderson said he longed for some official information on the government policy, not just the various and somewhat contradictory media reports.
``I'm sure we can tailor our menu to the new arrangements,'' he added. ``I just need to know what they are. Even a letter would be nice.''
John Nielson at the Quality Chop House restaurant said the government seemed to be sending mixed messages, saying one minute that beef was safe but the next minute suggesting it was not.
``It's the backtracking that's confused us and annoyed us,'' he said. But he has already taken T-bone steaks off his menu.

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