His brother died of brain disease. Ken Bell blames it on BSE. Now the beef baron prefers his steak from Namibia. Esther Oxford met him
Underneath Ken Bell's plush, "orientally- themed" office in Newcastle, his butchers are at work in a cold store chopping up raw beef. Not British beef - his clients are too worried about the risk of BSE: this is African beef.

"Do you want chicken pie or a Namibian steak for lunch?" Mr Bell asks as he escorts me through to his brocaded office. Propped on the mantlepiece is a faded photograph of Mr Bell's father standing outside his old meat shop. "We had a maid," Mr Bell announces proudly out of the blue, "and a car."

Now 68, Mr Bell runs a pounds 50m empire supplying meat and fish to restaurants mainly in the North-east. Five years ago he decided to risk discrediting his reputation by pouring some of his profits into researching what is popularly known as "mad cow disease". At the time he was worried that the threat of an epidemic was not being taken seriously enough, that the public was unwittingly buying meat that could cause illness. "I don't want to cross my fingers and hope that the food is clean. I want to be sure that the meat is safe," Mr Bell says.

Harash Narang, a clinical virologist at the Public Health Laboratories in Newcastle upon Tyne, was the man Mr Bell chose to sponsor. Having done much original work on spongiform disease over 25 years, Dr Narang had devised a slaughterhouse test to diagnose BSE in cattle that hadn't yet shown clinical symptoms of the disease. But in 1990 when he applied for an official grant to develop the tests, he was turned down. Beef was safe, the Ministry of Agriculture told him.

Mr Bell was incensed: "Here was a scientist who had some answers. Someone who was prepared to meet the problem head on. And yet the old boy network wouldn't let him work on the test. They didn't want some little Indian guy to come along and prove them all wrong."

Mr Bell offered Dr Narang pounds 20,000 to develop two cattle tests. "I want to be able to practise 'due diligence' when I trade meat," Mr Bell explains. "The sooner BSE is weaned out of the cattle market, the better." There is also a personal motive behind Mr Bell's crusade: his brother, a butcher, died in 1983 of a dementing brain disease. "He ate a lot of animal heads", is all Mr Bell will say on the matter.

Mr Bell fits perfectly the stereotype of the Northern businessman: rotund, trilby-hatted, a touch showy with a fast car, but straightforward. He will not deny his humble roots. He insists on school-dinnerish meals: today it's meat pie to begin with, then jelly (containing beef gelatine) and tinned tangerines for pudding.

Mr Bell employs 350 people and sells 150,000 beef meals a week through 1,500 outlets. But very little of it is British. In 1990, 80 per cent of his beef was British. Now just 10 per cent of it is raised in Britain.

Mr Bell is not sentimental. Namibian beef has a better flavour and is reared naturally, he says: no forced fattening, no dark sheds, no dangerous chemicals. And he says he can guarantee that it is BSE-free. The British beef industry, by comparison, is in a mess and as a meat trader he wants no part in it. "We are feeding cattle diseased food, then feeding diseased meat to our people ... I know some meat traders feel that I have betrayed the industry, but I believe you have to sell what is safe. I don't know if BSE can be passed on to humans. But I'm not prepared to find out by carrying out an experiment using real people," he says, voice booming.

So why do you carry on selling small amounts of British beef? "Because there is still a demand for it," he says. "And people will lose their jobs if I don't." But Mr Bell doesn't eat British beef. Nor does he serve it to his guests, his family or his 350 employees.

Mr Bell's family has been in the meat industry for three generations. "I started when I was six. I learnt the tricks of the trade." One of the "tricks" was to sell beef that had been "marinated in orange". "In fact, the orangey smell came from a liquid that leaked from our refrigerator. We would package the meat up with a couple of slices of citrus and our customers would be very happy."

He left school at 14 and went into the Navy. When the Second World War finished, he set up a business selling crumpets round villages outside Newcastle. "It wasn't successful, but I learnt about stock control," he says. In 1950, Mr Bell left his father's butcher shop in Newcastle and went down to London to make his fortune. He got a job at a prestigious butcher's in Marble Arch. Colleagues taught him sophisticated ways of cutting up meat. "They liked me because I could swing a 16lb cleaver. I was invaluable for cutting up frozen meat."

It was in London that he met his first wife (she later died of cancer) and together they left for North America where he became the manager of a meat department at a large downtown supermarket in Toronto. Eventually, Mr Bell tired of the travelling and moved back to Newcastle. By then his father's butcher's shop had been demolished. To start up a new business Mr Bell invested pounds 500 in a business in which he specialised in selling tough meat from cow beef. He developed a technique in which he "hung up" the tough meat for a couple of weeks. After a few days the meat produced an enzyme that made it "tender and tastier".

People bought it: the meat was competitively priced and it tasted good. "I made pounds 89 in the first week," Mr Bell says. Nearly 40 years on, yearly profits are "handsome". But Mr Bell does not sit on his stack of gold. He will not quantify how much he has put into cancer charities and Dr Narang's work. All he will say is: "Let's just say that the second wife has had to forgo the house in the South of France and the yacht to pay for all this."

"I'm not an Evangelist. But I am saying that doom is ahead. One of my greatest fears is that I get this disease. I've seen people die of CJD [Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease]. I've seen children lying there like living ghosts. It is a most horrible death. We need to be protected from these cowboys."

Which is why Mr Bell, now happily married to his second wife and blessed with two children and two grandchildren (both of whom are vegetarians), is prepared to pour money into Dr Narang's work. "The Americans welcome him with open arms", says Mr Bell. "Over here he is received in thunderous silence."