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The Independent Culture


THE PRESENT beef crisis is a continuing tragedy for farmers and the meat industry. But it throws into relief the main issue: do we still want to pay the price for a cheap food policy? Intensive farming of beef, pigs and poultry produces cheap food, but at what cost? It doesn't taste better, that's for sure. The ethics don't bear thinking about. Animal welfare has been a burgeoning issue of the last few years, witness public dismay at the way baby calves are exported. Educated people are feeling increasing contempt for a culture that relies on intensively reared animals, raised in cramped, inhuman conditions, fed a diet enriched with processed excrement. We hope these practices will end. But as long as cheap food is a priority over good food, this seems to be wishful thinking. But at least customers who want better standards should be able to seek them out. The consumer has never been in a stronger position to demand more accountability from the producers of our food supplies. Over the next four weeks, with the theme of a New Charter for Meat, we'll be talking to farmers, butchers, cooks and chefs, to review standards for meat and poultry. We challenge supermarkets and butchers to certify us meat which satisfies the criteria of quality, value, safety, welfare and especially taste. This week, we look at beef.

YOU'RE as likely to choke on a cherry stone as contract CJD from eating beef. Thus says David Lidgate, founder-chairman of the Q Guild of Butchers, with its 150 members dedicated to upholding quality in meat. On a graph, cases of BSE in cows reached a peak in January 1993, have been steadily falling and, by the year 2000, will disappear.

At the other end of the spectrum scientist Professor Richard Lacey, who blew the whistle on BSE in 1988, continues to preach his apocalyptic vision. On a graph, he insists, the number of victims from a new form of CJD is rising, perhaps doubling each year, so that by the year 2115... but who dares think about that?

These are the two extremes of view in the polarisation of thinking about Mad Cow Disease. Confidence in beef was rising until the announcement in March by the Minister of Agriculture and the Minister for Health that 10 deaths among young people from CJD were apparently due to a new strain of spongiform encephalopathy.

In the circumstances, this might not seem the cue for a feature on cooking beef. The debate goes on. The jury is still out. And we still don't know: is it safe to feed our children beef?

It has to be said at once that a food writer investigating the pros and cons of the arguments is about as well equipped to conduct the prosecution or defence case in a war crimes tribunal. Listen to those at the centre of the debate: farmers, butchers, supermarket buyers, scientists, politicians, environmentalists, but you will only hear a babel of self-justification.

People will talk and then, suddenly, make "off the record" allegations about others which send a chill down your spine (is there really, on the high seas and awaiting a customer a ship full of frozen pre-1988 "intervention" meat, bought by the EC when market prices dropped below a certain level?).

In any case, on the record, there are court cases involving farmers who lie and say they have no BSE in their herds when they have. In slaughterhouses, eight years since the government restrictions on the use of animal offal were supposed to have been put in place, we learn of unscrupulous people who are breaking the law. Malpractice is not restricted to Britain. In Ireland, Holland and Germany they are afflicted with a mafia of dealers trading in clenbuterol, so-called angel dust, an illegal hormone growth promoter, which can add another 10 per cent to the weight of an animal - and who knows what illnesses to humans.

If ever there was the need for a Hercules to clean the Augean stable it is now. A Mr Squeaky Clean. For a fifth-generation butcher like Holland Park's David Lidgate (his brother Bill is a farmer) the issue has always seemed perfectly clear. From the start, he has never sold cow meat. He has only sold meat from the suckling herd, fed on grass, and never on processed feeds. His suppliers are required to make this undertaking in writing.

"But don't all cattle eat grass?" his customers ask him, surprised. No, he says, they don't. The public has little idea of the shape of the meat industry, he says, and it hasn't been in most retailers' interests to inform them, least of all those selling cow for sausages, burgers, pies and other processed meats.

The public has frankly been left in the dark for the whole eight years of this crisis. Even if you had a preference you couldn't usually discover if meat was cow, bull, steer, heifer. If a product contained cow, there was no way they were are going to tell you.

If we don't know what is what, how can we make a comfortable decision, which many of us would like to base on taste as well as safety, not to mention welfare, husbandry, and methods of slaughter? This is the vexed question Marks & Spencer's has been addressing. Even before the crisis in March, it was well into a scheme of appointing Select Farms, some 1,000 of them across the country, to produce meat to its specification, drawing on steers from suckler herds which are traceable, eating approved feeds, with high standards of welfare and slaughter.

Last month, I joined M&S's technical manager, Chris Gilbert-Wood, to visit Galcantray Farm on the Highland-Grampian border. It is farmed by David Walker (his uncle James is a director of the famous Aberlour company of Walkers Shortbread). It is a scene of bucolic beauty, ducks and geese wandering the farmyard where the dense black Aberdeen Angus is king, this amiable, friendly and proud beast. "The way forward," David Walker has decided, "is to replace all crossbreeds with pure breeds." He has 50 pedigree Angus for breeding and sale, and 100 commercial animals for sale as beef. He's happy to feed them to M&S specifications, outdoors on his 360 acres of grass in spring and summer, indoors on silage in the winter.

Silage is dried, fermented grass, and he cuts it from 100 acres of fields he rents for this purpose. He can store 1,000 tons of it in a high-walled space, the size of half a football pitch, covered with plastic, packed down with old rubber tyres. This traditional feed is no more expensive than buying in feed concentrates, points out Mr Gilbert-Wood. "It doesn't cost more to be a good farmer than a bad farmer."

David Walker also grows his own barley and supplements their feed with carrots, something of a gourmet item in their diet (ones rejected by Safeway as too large or unshapely). The local meat processor, Scotbeef, monitors the farm, and also singles out individual animals whose progress they can follow, and whose eating quality will be analysed. Their tasting panels chomped their way through some 4,000 steaks before settling on the breed and feeding strategy.

David Walker proudly furnishes his records; the daily feeds, medicines, the provenance of every animal, certificates of pedigree, books of ancestry dating back to 1923. This is information they plan to share with the public. "The image of the industry is important now," explains Mr Gilbert-Wood. "We are looking to integrated farms. You must remember, in the past, animals were often moved from farm to farm. This will change."

He is confident of the safety of this meat, but can't make a scientific statement that it is clear. "I don't want to build up a false dream. We daren't make claims and then have science catch up with us. The industry can't stand another dent. As a first step, we need education so people can understand the shape of the beef industry. What is a cow. What is a steer."

Using such knowledge, suggests butcher David Lidgate, people would be able to assess what risk to take. You can use a pyramid as a model, he says. At the top, the least risk will be beef from suckler herds. Next, from organic farms. Next, from grass-fed animals. At the base is meat in burgers, sausages, pies, where the source is not declared. Our glossary of beef appears opposite (What's your beef?).

David Lidgate also has advice on the factors that affect flavour. First, the breed. Angus and similar cattle have fat, and therefore flavour. The feedstuff, too, is important. Grass produces well-marbled meat, dark, with soft yellow fat. The final factor is hanging; Mr Lidgate says the perfect meat may be hung up to three weeks. Butchers prefer less time since there is a 10 to 15 per cent weight loss in this time (they think of it as profit loss).

Supermarkets are grudgingly going down this road, though hanging is more likely to be between a week and 10 days (M&S hangs its Angus for one week, then matures it for two more in a VacPac, to avoid further weight loss).