Diners keep up demand for pork

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Farmers' fears of a consumer boycott of pork are proving unfounded as sales and consumption stay steady despite the swine fever outbreak. Supermarkets and fashionable up-market restaurants specialising in pork dishes yesterday said customers had been persuaded by the Ministry of Agriculture that no danger existed for people eating pork.

Farmers' fears of a consumer boycott of pork are proving unfounded as sales and consumption stay steady despite the swine fever outbreak. Supermarkets and fashionable up-market restaurants specialising in pork dishes yesterday said customers had been persuaded by the Ministry of Agriculture that no danger existed for people eating pork.

Sales of pig products have been unaffected despite a week of alarmist headlines and import bans by the EU, the US and several other countries. And veterinary scientists say they are confident that the outbreak of swine fever is unlikely to spread beyond East Anglia, Cheshire and Derbyshire.

Sainsburys, which sells more than half a million pork chops each week, has reported "no detectable difference" in sales over the past two weeks. Tesco also said there had been "no noticeable impact [on sales] so far".

Restaurants specialising in pork - in particular leaner cuts developed for modern tastes in recent years - are thriving. With autumn on the way, suckling pig is finding its way back onto top-quality menus.

At St John, a north London restaurant in the Clerkenwell district - emblem, the butcher's diagrammatic pig marked by the lines of cuts - Tom Blythe, the general manager, described high-grade pork as growing in popularity and as "uniquely, a toe-to-tail eating experience". He also detectedno fall in demand. "Pork is one of the products for which we are known. We don't specialise in suckling pig, but we are more than happy to provide it."

At Heathcote's restaurant, in Longridge, Lancashire, the respected chef and proprietor, Paul Heathcote, said the story was much the same. His manager, Alan Holmes, yesterday said: "There has been no downturn in demand. We use a small, family owned firm that specialises in porchetta and suckling pig, and with the summer drawing to an end demand is expected to increase. Suckling pig is at its best in the autumn - the animals have matured but still have that bit of fat on them that keeps the meat moist."

For pig producers, the slaughter programme ordered by the Government, the quarantine restrictions and the import bans from Europe and the US, are another setback. The industry was already in the doldrums from falling support prices and, as some saw it, the burden of providing standards of farm animal welfare seen to be far above those applied elsewhere in the EU.

Steve Allen, a director Of Central Pork Packers of Nottingham, said he was worried by the spate of import bans, especially those that had been imposed by the US on spare ribs, for which there had been a ready market. But, domestically, there had been little change, he said.

"Demand from supermarkets is typical for the time of year," he said. "It looks as if consumers accept the fact that swine fever is not a threat to their health. The last thing the industry needs is for consumption to go down."

In Suffolk, closer to the heart of the present outbreak, Trevor Carter, of Grampian Pork, told the Independent on Sunday that producers were starting to see the effect on their longer-term prospects of the slaughter programme.

"There is a measured optimism about," said Mr Carter. "This will turn to a broad smile when tests [for the disease] start to come out negative. Measures taken by the Government and the industry have been extremely well handled and there is nothing to report on the consumer front. It does appear at the moment that the industry has done an excellent job in containing this outbreak and in preventing an epidemic."

Ministry officials this week shared that view. "The message has come across loud and clear that this disease has been contained and is non-infective to humans. There is no danger to humans at all and there has been no downturn in demand."

As for the suggestion that the source of the outbreak, which is still being investigated by scientists, might be associated with Asian wild boars that have been imported to Germany and England, the ministry was firm in its rejection. "The wild boar is a complete red herring," a spokesman said.

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