Forget BSE - everyone is back on beef ...

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The Independent Online
BEEF IS firmly back on the British menu, and meat consumption is at its highest for nearly 20 years, returning to a level not seen since before the BSE crisis, according to latest figures from the Meat and Livestock Commission.

Indeed, one of London's best known "steak-frites" restaurant chains, Chez Gerard, last week announced a 20 per cent increase in its annual profits, from pounds 3m to pounds 3.65m.

Jasma Patel, the company's marketing director, said: "We found that because of reassurances made about our beef and its quality, people have continued to eat it. We are selling more beef steaks than ever. During the BSE crisis we had four restaurants, now we're up to seven, with another planned.

"It's not just people going back to eating meat, but people eating good quality beef, now more than ever," she said.

But exactly why Britain's carnivorous cravings have been rekindled is unclear. There is still widespread concern in the scientific community about the safety of beef. Directly after the BSE crisis in 1996, beef sales dropped by 30 per cent. Latest figures from the MLC show this trend has been reversed.

Recent health scares, such as those surrounding BSE and E.coli, have brought about a change in meat-eating habits. The types of meats that are being eaten are changing, with poultry and pork becoming more popular, but overall meat consumption is up. Recent market research carried out by Taylor Nelson Sofres found that roast beef was still the most popular Sunday meal, though more people were eating it out, rather than preparing it themselves.

"The figures fluctuate from month to month, and sales do tend to drop during the summer, but otherwise people are buying meat again," said Ray Barrowdale, an MLC spokesman.

The estimated total of average meat consumption per person in 1998 was 71.6 kilograms, rising from 68.1kg in 1996. The amount of lamb and poultry remained unchanged, while there was a slight drop of 0.2kg in bacon from its 1996 figure of 8kg and a rise of 1.5kg for pork, bringing its 1998 estimated total to 14.7kg.

"The way people react to things like this depends largely on how it is covered in the media. As the story changes and they learn more about it, more people begin to eat beef again," said Mr Barrowdale. "We've noticed that it's been the same with other food scares, demand dropping off, but it usually recovers after a while. The 1996 beef scare was probably the worst to hit the meat industry in our lifetime."

But vegetarians are not convinced that we are still a nation of meat- eaters. The Vegetarian Society has also studied the nation's eating habits and found that 82 per cent of people believed there would be more vegetarians in the future.

There were four million vegetarians in Britain, with the figure growing by about 5,000 per week, according to the society's spokesman, Chris Dessent. Three-quarters of those surveyed believed people would eat less meat in the future.

"Meat-eating is generally perceived to be the diet of the past," he said.

Last Friday, Sir Kenneth Calman, the Government's former chief medical officer, told the BSE inquiry that between 1989 and 1995 the public was repeatedly reassured that beef was safe to eat, while safeguards in slaughterhouses were being flouted.

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