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Catastrophe est la faute des Rosbifs*

Paul Field, in western France, finds out who is to blame for the beef crisis
There is a farm in Breche, 15 km from Tours, western France, that John Major should best avoid. It is home to Richard Courtigne, a farmer who understandably gets passionate when one of his herd answers a call of nature.

Standing in a field, wife Christine and daughter Charlotte, three, beside him, he points at the rear of the animal and yells: "Look at that - as green as the grass she feeds on." His heifers and steers are huge, healthy beasts, traditionally reared and most certainly free of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), but he is struggling to sell them. And he knows why.

"My business is suffering because British farmers fed their cattle contaminated meat and the British Government deregulated the beef industry and failed to act properly over BSE," he says.

"And all your Prime Minister wants is to declare war on Europe because we do not want your beef. He is only interested in winning votes because the British want to be outside Europe."

French beef sales plummeted after the BSE scare in Britain and are still down 25 per cent, while sales in Britain are returning to pre-crisis levels. Shunning beef comes hard to the French: although they refer to Britons as Les Rosbifs, France is the largest consumer of beef in Europe, producing 1,800,000 tons a year, and importing even more.

In restaurants and delicatessens, andouillette, a small tripe sausage, amourette, spinal bone marrow, and tete de veau, calf head, remain on the menu but beef offal has not been selling well since the Institute of National Consumers told the public not to eat them as vache folle fears gripped the nation.

The lack of consumer confidence is reflected in the problems facing Mr Courtigne. He has 50 bulls, 40 prime beef heifers and steers and a handful of dairy cows. Every year he exports 80 per cent of his bulls to Italy, Spain and Arab countries. His overseas sales collapsed after the world-wide ban on British beef imposed at the end of March.

"Our markets closed overnight. The statement from your Health Secretary about Creutzfeld-Jakob disease was a catastrophe for French farmers," he says. "The value of our beef fell dramatically because for the French, until there is proof, there is a risk."

The price per live kilogram for his cattle has dropped by 3 francs, about 40p, more than double the fall at British markets. Selling 12 beef cattle a year, with a drop from F6,800 to F5,600 francs a head, he stands to lose pounds 1,800. The value of his bulls has fallen from F8,000 to F6,500

His frustration is all the more severe owing to his methods of rearing cattle. It is what in Britain would be considered traditional, extensive farming, and an exception to the rule. In France, it is the norm. Most of the 120,000 beef farmers belong to the Viande Bovine Francaise quality- assurance scheme, under which each animal has a certificate detailing its name, breed, date of birth and origins.

"In effect, our animals each have an identity card and the scheme has helped us through this crisis. In France, consumers know what they are buying."

It is odd, then, given the farming methods and the mark of excellence, that even in a butcher's in Chateau-la-Valliere, the nearest town to Breche, customers are reluctant to buy beef. The last few customers before the shop shuts for the afternoon are buying chicken. "It is not worth the risk," says one. "Some farmers use British cows for breeding."

In another shop, at nearby Beaumont-la-Ronce, butcher Cedric Rouable is indignant. "We will not have British beef in here, we will not have any French beef that has been near British beef, which is why our sales were only affected for two weeks after the crisis, which is further proof that Britain is the brothel of Europe. Belgian beef is even worse, of course."

As in Britain, the French beef crisis has affected all sectors of the industry. Owing to the remoteness of many French farms and the small number of cattle reared, producers tend to sell their cattle to middlemen, who deliver them to abattoirs.

One such dealer, Christian Chauveau, explains the problems facing the industry. "The export business has collapsed, abattoirs and renderers are not getting British beef to prepare for sale, and people like me are losing money fast ...

"Even as sales start to return to normal, prices remain deflated. There is a fear about eating beef and I am worried that if the export ban on Britain is lifted, fears will grow about contaminated meat being in circulation."

Reading aloud from the Terre de Touraine, a farming newspaper for the Loire region, is beef farmer Jacques Mechin. When he gets to an editorial, referring to Britain's unacceptable behaviour in allowing the BSE crisis to escalate, he thumps on the kitchen table at his farm in Pernay, 7km south of Breche.

"The British should slaughter the lot. That is the only way to eradicate the disease."

His wife, Denise, agrees. "In France, if one cow in a herd of 200 gets BSE, they are all destroyed. That is why we have only had 19 cases since 1991. British farmers are greedy, giving their cattle infected feed; it is a scandal."

If the couple sold all their stock, it would be worth 15 per cent less than it was before the BSE scare. "We should get compensation for our losses. This crisis is not our fault. It is the responsibility of British farmers, who are getting plenty of compensation, and who pays for that? People like us."

So, Mr Major, even if you wear a tin hat, brandish a bayonet, or arrive in a tank, stay away from Breche and Pernay, and farming communities all over France. Or you're dead meat.

*The crisis is the fault of the British