Stores 'to ban prime beef from abattoirs'

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The Wimpy fast food chain last night announced a radical overhaul of its menu amid a continuing slump in sales of beefburgers. The move came as the Government disclosed that one in 20 British slaughterhouses and plants dealing with beef offal is failing to meet new controls to combat the threat of BSE.

Wimpy is introducing 10 new dishes from today, featuring turkey, lamb, pork and cod, plus a vegetarian alternative.

"We have every confidence in the safety of the beef we source, but we recognise that some customers are looking for alternatives," Max Woolfenden,Wimpy's managing director,said. Traditional beefburgers, which have been sourced from Dutch, French and Irish beef since the crisis over mad cow disease erupted, will continue to be sold at the food chain's 272 restaurants around the United Kingdom.

A spokeswoman said customers had "voted with their feet" in deserting beef products, adding: "We have experienced a drop of 20 per cent in our beef lines, which equates to around 100,000 meals a week which have either switched to non-beef products or disappeared totally."

Controversy over the BSE scare continued yesterday as Douglas Hogg, the Minister of Agriculture, announced in a Commons written reply that health inspectors had found failings in 5.4 per cent of their visits to slaughterhouses.

In one case, inspectors found an entire spinal cord, which should have been removed, left attached to a carcass when it was sent out for food production. Inspectors made 1,079 unannounced visits to plants handling offal in the first two months of this year. They found failings in 59 cases.

Mr Hogg said: "It is disappointing that deficiencies are still being found in a small number of slaughterhouses, hunt kennels and knackeries."

One officer from the meat hygiene service has been dismissed because of a failure to fully enforce controls and 22 others have been subjected to a full disciplinary investigation since last summer. One slaughterhouse is facing prosecution over alleged significant breaches of the regulations and several more are under investigation.

Attempts to bring the crisis to an end were also damaged by supermarket chains urging their beef suppliers to refuse to participate in the Government's plan to dispose of at least 21,000 cattle a week.

Retailers are concerned that public confidence in British beef will be undermined if abattoirs supplying them with prime beef also slaughter older cows, considered to be at great risk from BSE. The destruction of cattle over 30 months old as part of efforts to eradicate the disease was due to begin today, but will not start until next week.

The British Retail Consortium said Safeway, Somerfield and Waitrose have threatened to take their business elsewhere if suppliers participate.

Janet Nunn, the consortium's food director, said: "It may be important for the abattoirs in the short term, but in the long term it must be worth their while satisfying their retail customers."