Living: The safe beef guide

Wholesale slaughter of entire herds of cows will not restore consumer confidence nor help the industry. Buying meat carefully from trusted suppliers may. By Emily Green
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Indy Lifestyle Online
We consumers have never had so much attention. During the past 10 days, much has been trumpeted about the state of our confidence regarding beef. We are told by radio bulletins and banner headlines that it is shaken, and it needs a "gesture". This "gesture" looks likely to be the hastily ordered slaughter of untold numbers of cattle. Well, before we all go mad, if not from eating beef, but from hype, it merits asking: will this "gesture", in fact, engender confidence? or is confidence, perhaps, the result of a trust, one we, as consumers, must nurture?

Consider the confidence-enhancing measures taken on our behalf after the salmonella in eggs crisis of 1988. According to Dr Richard North, a food safety expert, that year we had 21,000 reported cases of salmonella. The crisis was quelled by a series of "gestures" that brought about the slaughter of 3.5 million chickens and closed 9,800 poultry businesses. By 1995, we had 31,000 cases of salmonella.

The situation with beef is a great deal more grave. It may soon be not a question of how to buy it, but whether one can find it. Nervous consumers cannot simply suddenly turn to organic beef producers. They are not there in sufficient numbers; they represent less than one per cent of the market. Bill Reynolds, owner of Swaddles Green Farm, says his phone has been "melting down" with sudden demand for meat produced on his Somerset poultry farm and the five neighbouring farms, which supply him with organic beef, pork and lamb. Last year his meat won the 1995 Soil Association Organic Food Award. "This crisis has come from 50 years of bad practice, from the British consumer's desire for cheaper and cheaper food," he says. Price differentials do tell a salutary story. Beef mince at a supermarket will cost in the region of 99p/lb, whereas an organic butcher might charge more in the region of pounds 3.13. Yet it is not just the consumer's greed at fault here; organic meat has not made the inroads it might have into the conventional market because of clumsy butchering and sloppy retailing.

So can we find safe, skilfully butchered, palatable meat in, say, Tesco? For some time now, leading supermarkets have been labelling their top lines of beef as "heritage" or "traditional". We cannot know what this label means, though it is probably stuck on reasonably high-quality meat. Tesco says it is teaching its floor staff how to answer questions from worried consumers.

Neither a label nor a hastily briefed stock boy, however, are a convincing substitute for a knowledgeable butcher. The consumer seriously concerned about BSE is best served in a specialist butcher shop. Here staff can tell you that the best beef will come from suckler herds, beef cattle so named because calves suckle until ready to graze and enjoy the highest standards of animal husbandry. These herds have been largely unscathed by BSE, and are sustained on grass pasture in the summer and silage (a grass-based feed) in the winter. Joanna Blythman, a Glenfiddich Award- winning journalist, writes in her new book The Food We Eat: "The meat quality can be glorious, hence the worldwide reputation of Scotch beef ... while beef from suckler herds makes up 68 per cent of Scottish beef, it makes up only 25 per cent of English and only 40 per cent of UK beef production." Those of us who want to support the best of British beef producers could start by making the effort to look for that 40 per cent.

The meat that is spookiest must be Mechanically Recovered Meat, MRM, which is, simply explained, blasted off the bones of clapped out dairy cows then reconstituted by food processors. This is the stuff that the cheap burger bars and pasty-makers have tended to employ.

MRM is not a particularly appealing process, but arguably it should be legitimate, provided the recovered meat is not from cows with BSE.

So how, as consumers, should we demand BSE be rooted out of British dairy herds whose mortal remains might end up in our pasties? If the tide of media panic and European Union pressure is not already too ruinous, the responsible answer is: carefully. If, as has been suggested, a slaughter policy is aimed at older dairy cows purely as a matter of age, and not health, it could wipe out our farmhouse cheese-makers. John Curtis has been making Bonchester cheese on his farm just north of the Scottish border for 15 years. "We've never fed them on anything that isn't of vegetable origin," says Mr Curtis. "We've never had any cases of BSE. Why we should kill our cows because other people have made a bog-up of BSE I really don't see. I'm fond of my cows. They're my friends. They come when I call them, just like dogs." Yet Mr Curtis's herd could be at risk. He prefers older cows. The oldest, a 10-year-old, is called Musical Lightening. The average age is five. Would it inspire consumer confidence, or horror, to slaughter these cows?

Let's say a slaughter policy was introduced aimed at wiping out herds that have had any cases of BSE. This sounds thorough, but should we really find comfort in it? This consumer thinks not. Mark Purdey, a BSE researcher and organic dairy farmer from Somerset, has had four cases of BSE in bought- in cattle, but none in his home-reared livestock.

Consumers may have heard of Mr Purdey. He believes the trigger for the British epidemic of BSE was mandatory use of organo-phosphorate pesticides for warble fly on British dairy herds in 1984, and his theory is gaining credence. He took the Government to court and succeeded, as an organic farmer, in stopping the Ministry of Agriculture from treating his cows. The upshot, he says, is that he, and fellow organic farmers, have not had any cases of BSE in home-reared cattle (nor has it been common in beef herds, which were not treated). There is nothing to indicate that Mr Purdey's healthy cows might have been infected by the bought-in ones. Rather, there is evidence that the deformed prion causing BSE is passed through the placenta during pregnancy. The sensible solution, says Mr Purdey, is to take out family lines, not entire herds. This is quite possible because detailed records are kept of stock movement. As an extra precaution, we might find it reassuring if healthy cattle from herds with any incidence of BSE were not sold on for meat at the end of their milking lives, and their owners paid the appropriate compensation.

Or should the worried consumer simply turn to lamb? This is not so simple. The BSE crisis may have the knock-on effect of wrecking the meat industry by closing small, rural abattoirs. By the time lamb starts coming through in several months, many may already have shut. The Meat and Livestock Commission estimates there are 470 active abattoirs remaining in Britain; in 1985, there were 1,022. This is largely because of expensive and bureaucratic EU regulations, which led to the closure of many smaller abattoirs. Dr North is author of Death by Regulation: the Butchery of the British Meat Industry. He says: "Whatever happens now, more abattoirs are going to go to the wall, more small farms will go to the wall. Supermarkets will survive the loss. The small cutting plant, the small butcher, the small farmer can't."

At the time of the salmonella in eggs crisis, the food writer Jane Grigson wrote in the Observer that she would not tell other people what to do, but that she, herself, would continue to use raw eggs. At the time I did the same, and still think it safe. That said, I buy organic eggs and purchase them fresh from a supplier I know and trust.

As for the BSE crisis I will still buy beef. I will choose it carefully; I will not buy it at a supermarket. I want to show my local butcher and dairy the same sort of support I show the health-food shop where I buy eggs. This sort of relationship is not only the root of confidence when it comes to shopping and eating, it is also pleasurable. The two books listed below are excellent places to start confidence-building: The Food We Eat tells you how to choose food, the Food Lover's Guide where to find it - it lists organic suppliers.

'The Food We Eat' by Joanna Blythman (Michael Joseph, pounds 7.99), 'Food Lover's Guide to Britain' by Henrietta Green (BBC Books pounds 9.99).