BEEF CRISIS: A very English disease leaves tourists wary

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Tucking into a box of Chicken McNuggets at a west London McDonald's yesterday, six-year-old James Raymond declared he wouldn't be eating beef anymore: "The cows have got a disease".

McDonald's ban British beef from its 670 UK outlets was backed by its customers, the fast-food chain said yesterday. Paul Preston, its president, said: "We believe that British beef is safe. However we cannot ignore the fact that recent announcements have led to a growing loss of consumer confidence in British beef which has not been restored."

McDonald's burger meals, of which the meat content is usually 50 per cent British beef, will not be available until Thursday when Big Macs made from Dutch meat will be introduced. McDonald's denied the company had dealt the British beef industry a severe blow by withdrawing orders worth pounds 25m a year. A spokesman said: "We continue to support British beef as we always have." Asked why the company had made its decision before tomorrow's expected announcement by scientists on the Spongiform encephalopathy Advisory Committee (SEAC), he said customers expected McDonald's to take the lead.

The chain's rivals and major supermarkets were yesterday waiting for further information from the Government before deciding whether to follow suit.

A spokeswoman for Burger King said: "We're holding tight until we see what SEAC say and a ban is one of the options we are considering. There appears to still be demand for burgers."

At the chain's Leicester Square branch, customers were opting for chicken. Patrick Raz, 37, and his daughter Dalya, 4, were sharing a barbecue chicken burger. "I haven't touched any beef since this whole thing started," said Mr Raz.

Tesco outlets were yesterday awaiting the arrival of BSE information leaflets, to be distributed to customers this week. A spokesman said: "We won't be taking a decision to ban beef from our stores until the government says so. We know there are significant numbers of our customers who won't be buying beef so we are altering stock accordingly." He denied beef prices had been slashed, saying price reductions were routine. Sainsbury said its beef policy was "under review", while Asda said beef sales had "slowed".

Whitbread, the group which owns Beefeater, Brewers Fayre, Pizza Hut and TGI Friday restaurants, said most of its beef came from Australia and Argentina. "We are taking a different view from McDonald's, and allowing customers to make their own minds up," said a spokesman.

Posters for chicken and fish meals covered menus listing beef burgers at a McDonald's branch in Nottingham yesterday, while in Glasgow, adverts for Big Macs were masked. Tony Gemmill, of Glasgow, said: "I think you should have the choice. It's just like smoking."

In London, Aberdeen Steak House in Leicester Square was deserted but staff refused to comment on the rows of empty tables.

Meanwhile, two American tourists were deterred from dining at the Aldwych Brasserie by an advertisement for sirloin steak. Mary Palmer and Karen Smith, from Oregon, said they were not touching any beef. "Visiting England is pretty dangerous at the moment," said another tourist. "If you don't get blown up, you'll probably get poisoned."