Beef Ban Lifted: An industry slaughtered and pounds 4bn lost - the pric e of policy on the hoof

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The Independent Online
WHEN Stephen Dorrell announced 32 months ago that "mad cow" disease was, after all, a threat to human health, it marked the beginning of the end for Britain's lucrative market in beef exports.

After years of reassuring statements by a succession of Tory ministers, it was left to Mr Dorrell, then secretary of state for health, to deliver the killer blow to the beef industry with a statement on 20 March 1996. It said that bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) was the most likely cause of a new brain disorder in humans.

Seven days later, the European Commission banned the export of all bovine products from the UK, including embryos, semen and food additives.

Overnight, Britain lost pounds 500m a year in export revenue from beef alone but, worse still, the ban led to a crisis in consumer confidence at home.

Rather than protecting human health, the export ban was a political decision, designed to boost consumer confidence abroad and to punish Britain for past mistakes, such as failing to inform Europe of the Dorrell announcement.

By March 1995, British beef could be considered the safest in the world. Britain already had the toughest anti-BSE measures in Europe and the epidemic had already peaked at 1,000 cases a week. It is now running at about 100 a week.

The export ban and subsequent mass slaughter were seen as irrelevant given that the disease was already dying out. Yet the day after the Dorrell announcement a number of local authorities banned beef andtook it off school menus.

Some butchers went bankrupt, the meat-processing business was devastated and farmers began to experienceone of the biggest crises in post-war agriculture.

Duncan Sinclair, senior analyst in beef at the Meat and Livestock Commission, said beef consumption plummeted in the weeks following the Dorrell announcement. Britons ate 740,000 tons of beef in 1996, compared with 901,000 tons in 1995.

Over the past year, confidence has gradually been restored, although it is still lower than before the link was made between BSE and a new form of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD). Now just over half of British households regularly buy beef, 10 per cent lower than before March 1995.

Sue Davis, senior policy researcher at the Consumers' Association, said that the beef crisis unleashed a wave of distrust in politicians, with only one in 10 people having complete faith in what they are officially told about food safety.

Once the Government hadstated the link between BSE and CJD, its own measures to protect the public were also taken with a view of trying to regain its credentials with Brussels, and three million older cattle were ordered to be culled.

In June 1996, the former prime minister, John Major, signed the Florence agreement laying out the groundwork for overturning the export ban.

All links in the beef-production chain, from farmer and slaughterhouse, to retailers and restaurateurs, were decimated.

Peter Scott, general secretary of the Federation of Fresh Meat Wholesalers, said the immediate aftermath of the crisis had been devastating. "At least 50 per cent of exports was beef from dairy cows to the Middle East and the Third World. But because they were more than 30 months old they couldn't be exported at all," he said.

The Government had to spend millions of pounds supporting the middle- men caught up in the crisis. It gave nearly pounds 80m to the slaughterhouses to clear the backlog of animals for which there was no market; the renderers received aid to help produce mountains of meat and bone meal which could only be burnt in power stations; and dairy farmers receivedcompensation for losing the export market in veal calves.

Farmers suffered the brunt of the emergency measures. Ian Gardner, of the National Farmers' Union, said the beef crisis was an "enormous shock".

"Overnight they lost 28 per cent of their market. Up to a third was knocked off the price of beef," he said. "And prices have still not recovered."

Things have not been much better for butchers. "It's been tough and getting tougher," said Graham Bidston, of the National Federation of Meat and Food Traders. "Over the past two years an awful lot of people have lost their jobs."

Lorry drivers and restaurateurs were also badly hit. The Road Haulage Association (RHA) claimed hauliers were the "forgotten victims". At the height of the crisis livestock hauliers were losing in excess of pounds 350,000 a week with total losses totalling more than pounds 33m. Dozens of haulage firms linked to the livestock sector went bust with the loss of more than 400 jobs.

The total costs have been estimated at pounds 4.6bn. In terms of long- term damage to confidence in a traditional industry, it is probably much, much more.

BSE - How A Scare Became a Nightmare

20 March 1996: Scientific advisers to the Government say there is link between BSE and a new form of CJD. Stephen Dorrell, Secretary of State for Health, announces measures to eliminate BSE.

21 March 1996: British beef is withdrawn from thousands of British schools by local authorities.

27 March 1996: European Commission bans the export of British beef.

3 April 1996: Cull of all animals over 30 months to stop them entering the human food chain.

31 May 1996: Britain sends details of its eradication programme to the Commission.

11 June 1996: Partial lifting of the ban on certain beef products, such as gelatin and semen.

21 June 1996: European heads of government agree on the progressive removal of the export ban.

5 May 1998: European Court of Justice rejects Britain's appeal against the export ban.

July 1998: Northern Ireland exports beef again.

23 November 1998: European Union governments finally lift the ban.

The Farmer

Harry Fleming, 39, with a young family to support from his Scottish Borders farm, believes the beef market has bottomed out and he intends to expand his herd.

The 73 young cattle he took to St Boswells market last month fetched pounds 22,339. Before the BSE crisis took hold, an almost identical number of animals yielded pounds 35,442.

"Lifting the ban will put a base under the market and hopefully people like McDonald's and Burger King will try and buy more beef in this country. But any recovery in the export market will take a long time."

The Wholesaler

Jacques Van Vlymen, managing director of the meat wholesalers Slater and Cooke at Smithfield, London, said: "It was vital to lift the ban. A lot of factories have gone out of business and the knock-on effects have been widespread. At first, the prices of other meats went right up. Then those prices fell too.

"The last government had a pivotal role and took the wrong decision. They were biased.

"The issue was also misreported, with the BBC adopting an almost vegetarian stance. They seem so aligned with animal rights that they always put the farmer in the wrong."

The Butcher

A butcher for 42 years, the beef scare posed a potential crisis for Robert Withecombe. "We had to work much harder for our money," said Mr Withecombe, 57, who owns two shops and a catering business in Barnstaple, Devon. "At first we were encouraging customers to eat other meats. Then as confidence returned the beef sales went back up, but we had to deal with other hidden costs - deboning all the meat and paying for the bones to be destroyed. All along we only sold locally produced British beef ... the ban being lifted could mean pressure on supplies, which would lead to a price increase."

The Chef

"We noticed the difference in restaurants straight away. We had to stop ordering beef immediately," said Peter Arrowsmith, 36, head chef at Euphorium in north London. "Customers were scared. They were not informed enough.

"Now things are getting a little better. I put entrecote on the menu two weeks ago. I used Scottish beef and it sold really well.

"The real problem for me in the kitchen is the ban on the beef on the bone. I can't do cotes de boeuf and I can't even use bone marrow, which is an important part of several classic sauces. It will take years to get back to normal."

The Consumer

I didn't really take too much notice of the scare," admitted Nicola Ehrenberg, 25, from Redditch, Worcestershire.

"At first, when all the scare stories were around, I tried to stop eating beef but I missed it too much. Other meat just didn't have the edge. I think a lot of other meat-eaters were the same. If they liked beef they kept on eating it regardless of the scare.

"For me, beef was just too important a part of my diet to give up - I eat it twice a week and my favourite dish remains my mum's roast beef dinners."