An ostrich dish to die for

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The Independent Online
Diners in some of Europe's trendiest restaurants are faced with an alarming dilemma after the outbreak of the latest food scare. A tropical disease which has been likened to the deadly Ebola virus is now threatening to do for booming sales of ostrich meat what BSE has done for beef.

The European Commission slapped an indefinite ban yesterday on imports of live ostriches and ostrich meat from South Africa after an outbreak of Congo-Crimean fever, a highly unpleasant disease which in humans causes massive haemorrhaging and degeneration of the body's organs. EU scientific and veterinary experts advised the ban after the death of a worker in a South African ostrich abattoir. Fifteen other people are reported to be seriously ill following exposure to the infection in the same premises.

Congo-Crimean fever is a tick-borne disease which in human victims causes internal and external bleeding leading to the collapse of body organs. It is fatal in about 30% of cases. Veterinary experts suspect the infection may be more virulent in ostriches than in other animals. South African researchers are conducting urgent research to establish the risks to human health.

The ban, which could be disastrous for South Africa's thriving ostrich industry, has angered the authorities in Pretoria who said they would lodge an official complaint given that the outbreak was confined to one slaughterhouse.

The EU imports about 800 tonnes a year of ostrich meat from South Africa, according to the European Ostrich Association. South Africa's industry is by far the biggest: of the 200,000 animals slaughtered annually,160 000 are raised there.

South Africa pioneered ostrich farming over 100 years ago but the industry is in its infancy in Europe. There are some 5,000 Ostrich farmers in Europe, mostly in Holland, and more in the US.

Ironically, demand for ostrich, kangaroo and other exotic meats has soared in the wake of the BSE scare which has caused consumption of beef to fall by up to 40%. With a taste and a texture somewhere in between chicken and beef, it is served grilled like steak. It had started to take off in Britain in the last year (unlike the bird, which is flightless). But the latest scare is likely to do it no good, even though it is only supplies from South Africa which have been questioned.

Most of the ostrich meat eaten in Britain comes from domestic producers, and there is no reason to think it carries any health risk at all. Our beef may be suspect, but good old traditional British ostrich is still perfectly safe to eat.