Rare confidence for men with reputations at steak

Watching Dick van Leeuwen slice up a prime rump steak, enthusing about how he likes a bit of fat on it, the visitor could not help but think that the timing of the Festival of British Beef was a little unfortunate.

The news that scientists had all but confirmed that "mad cow" disease was passed to humans from infected beef was only hours old as caterers and suppliers gathered at the Queen Elizabeth Conference Centre in London in a mutual reassurance exercise.

"It has put a bit of a damper on it," conceded Paul Chaston, kitchen manager of Sutcliffe Catering. "I'm convinced that British beef is as safe as it's ever likely to be, but it's the customer that still has to be convinced."

Mr Chaston is in charge of a canteen at Heathrow serving 2,500 staff, but until customers start asking for British beef it will not be back on the menu. At the moment the company serves Irish beef.

A joint initiative involving the Meat and Livestock Commission, the Ministry of Agriculture, the festival was largely preaching to the converted.

The 30 or so caterers watching keenly as Mr van Leeuwen demonstrated how to seam a steak and prepare the muscle separately - making it easier to remove gristle and bits of bone - were well aware that BSE has not been detected in muscle or fatty tissue.

They shared the view of Don Curry, chairman of the MLC, that the latest research has not changed a thing as safeguards already in place against infected beef were based on a worst case assumption. "All our beef comes from animals less than 30 months old or from government assurance schemes."

Kevin Taylor, MAFF's deputy chief veterinary officer, told the conference that his wife Jean sometimes caused chaos in restaurants when she turned away foreign beef.

"She has developed a habit that whenever we go out for a meal or go into a restaurant she asks where the beef comes from. If it's not British she refuses it on the grounds of safety and quality," Mr Taylor said, adding that he had "every confidence" in her approach.

With the conference centre thick with the aroma of roast and grill, the trade gravitated via a blind tasting session of beef from six countries to a meaty buffet lunch.

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