Beef goes back on dinner table

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People's fears about the risks of catching "mad-cow disease" from eating beef appear to be receding. Domestic sales of beef last month were slightly above those for the same time in 1995 - the first time that has happened since consumer confidence in beef slumped in autumn 1995.

The Meat and Livestock Commission (MLC), an industry group, said the figures show "a huge vote of confidence" by consumers.

The figures, covering both fresh and frozen beef, were boosted by the decision during June of the fast-food chains Burger King and McDonald's and schools to start using British beef again.

The chains stopped using it in March 1996, shortly after the Government announced that a new form of the fatal brain disorder, Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD), was probably linked to exposure to bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) - almost certainly through eating infected food.

So far, 19 Britons have been diagnosed as having the "new variant" CJD, and scientists have been gathering evidence that the two have a direct link.

Beef sales started falling in autumn 1995, when fears about BSE in food escalated after a former government medical adviser said he would not eat beef.

Soon after the March announcement, overall beef sales fell by a third.

But they proved remarkably quick to recover: in May 1996 they were running at 94 per cent of the 1995 levels.

Yesterday's figures were 0.6 per cent up on June 1995. Supermarkets also reported a rise in sales.

Sainsbury's said sales figures had risen over the past couple of months and were now five to seven per cent up on pre-BSE levels.

"Sales went up quite quickly after the initial slump to about 75 per cent of pre-crisis levels," said a spokeswoman.

"They were running at about 90 per cent for a while; now they seem to have exceeded levels before the BSE crisis hit.

"I suppose it could be because people are stocking up for barbecues, even though the weather in June was certainly not very suitable for eating outdoors."