BEEF AT RISK: Carnivores at the cutting edge scotch rumours of lost cou rse

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The Independent Online
In the Cock Tavern, in the shadow of the soaring Victorian arches which span Smithfield meat market in London, there were no doubts about the safety of beef yesterday.

At the top of the stairs leading down to the cosy basement restaurant a hand-written poster advertised "the ultimate challenge, Britain's biggest steak". The 40oz Scotch ribsteak costing pounds 16.50 is no meal for the faint- hearted.

Every day up to 10 people tackle these monsters and most manage to clear their plates to get a well-earned and by then much-needed free bottle of wine. Those who have scaled this carnivorous Everest include Will Carling. But even England's recently retired rugby captain was unable to beat the record held by one man who ate one of the 40oz giants in 13 minutes without requiring the services of Bart's hospital across the road.

Mike Callaghan, owner of the Cock, said that successive health scares about beef have not affected business. He added: "We get people coming in here to have a steak because their wives won't buy beef any more because they are scared to do so. A lot of people round here think that the health scares are a conspiracy by people with a vegetarian interest.

"There is no evidence of BSE in Scotch and Irish herds and that is the beef I buy upstairs. We sell all steer beef and there is no problem with that, the problem is predominantly in the dairy herds."

His customers were similarly confident. Six computer programmers from a nearby company regularly go to the Cock to eat beef and yesterday five tucked into moderately sized steaks while the sixth plumped for beef stroganoff. One of them, Cecil Adams from Surrey, said: "We love beef and we come here for the steaks."

But there are fears among the 1,000-strong workforce at Smithfield that yesterday's government announcement about new evidence of a link between CJD, the human form of BSE, and infected beef, will further undermine public confidence and cause jobs losses.

Gordon Hogg, a Smithfield meat trader, said: "Obviously if there is a problem we all want to know about it.

``But it is an unproven link and a lot of people are going to lose their livelihoods if this carries on."

John Everett, chairman of the Smithfield branch of the Transport and General Workers Union, and a porter there for almost 30 years, added: "I have been eating beef all my life and there has never been any inkling of any type of disease being caught from that. I take beef home and we have a roast almost every weekend.

"There are only a few cases of this disease each year and there is no proven link with beef. We have probably got more chance of winning the National Lottery than we have of catching it from beef.

"We are very depressed about the situation because everyone feels that this is going to have a knock-on effect on jobs in the trade. We always notice a slackening off of demand after these scares."

But among the true believers there will always be a market for beef. At Simpsons, in the Strand, that most traditional of British restaurants, the Union flag fluttered outside yesterday and roast Scotch beef was on the menu at pounds 17.50.

John Hampton, a London businessman, smiled as he emerged after eating beef. "It was wonderful, but then it always is here," he said.

"I don't believe these health stories but, whatever the truth, let's get this in perspective. I smoke, I drink and frankly eating beef is pretty far down the list of habits which are likely to kill me."