The best of British beef is now only fit to be fed to dogs

Richard Ehrlich resents being denied eating some of his favourite dishes
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The Independent Online
From the kitchen, on the ground floor, a wonderful fragrance reaches my office at the top of the house. It's the braised oxtail I'm having for dinner tonight, one of my favourite dishes. And I may not get to eat it again for a long, long time.

The reason, of course, is BSE and its human equivalent, CJD. My beef comes from a herd in Devon that's never been touched by the disease, but the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff) has decided that all beef bones are bad. From Tuesday, the conscientious farmer who raises what I'm eating tonight will no longer be allowed to sell it. The tail will be cut off at the abattoir and disposed of "in accordance with the Animal By-Products Order 1992". This exquisite delicacy can go into dog food, under the proposals set out by Minister of Agriculture, Jack Cunningham, but not into my casserole.

Dr Cunningham's decision has aroused apparently universal contempt in the quality end of the food-retailing business. David Lidgate, of the well-regarded London butchers C Lidgate, calls CJD "the epidemic that has refused to grow in size", and wonders if there is some "media conspiracy" trying to exaggerate the dangers. A popular choice among broadcasters needing soundbites from butchers, he has noticed that the researchers who talk to him often seem to be vegetarians.

As far as Mr Lidgate's customers are concerned, the ban is preposterous. "The day after the ban was announced," he says, "sales of forerib and other bone-in cuts increased to 10 times their usual volume. In the days since, sales have sometimes dropped as low as four times the normal volume." But those buyers are worried about the future. At least a dozen ("captains of industry, people in positions of authority") have asked him: "We'll still be able to buy what we want from you, won't we?"

Charlotte Reynolds, of the all-organic Swaddles Green Farm in Somerset, reports similar responses among her customers. "They're adamant about wanting beef on the bone, whatever the ostensible risk." And she agrees: "The ban is absolutely absurd. These animals have been attached to their bones for 30 months in the field." Removing the bones just before sale can hardly reduce the risk, if there is one, that infective material in the dorsal root ganglia will be passed into muscle tissue.

Will some butchers continue to sell "illegal" cuts once the ban is in effect? Trevor Gulliver, of the St John restaurant in Clerkenwell, London, knows of at least one who has said he will. Mr Lidgate says: "I think they would be crazy to do it." Crazy, in this context, means facing maximum penalties (under the Food Safety Act of 1990) of two years in prison and unlimited fines. "Which other crimes," he asks, "carry comparable punishment?"

There are limited loopholes in the proposed ban. It applies only to animals over six months old. This could provide a lifeline for French-orientated restaurants whose cuisine is based on deeply flavoured veal stock. It also means that St John can continue selling its popular roasted marrow bones with parsley: these are made with Dutch veal.

Not all of the affected parties are as worried about the difficulties they will face when the ban comes into effect. Mr Gulliver points out that "there are many wonderful cuts on a beef carcass", not all of which need to be sold on the bone. He is more worried about the stock problem. Rib of beef can be boned and rolled without - contrary to popular belief - significant loss of flavour. At the Quality Chop House in London, where T-bone steak is a regular item (and reinstated by popular demand after being removed in the wake of the Maff announcement), they will sell it until Tuesday and then serve rump steak instead.

Meanwhile dinner parties up and down the land are feasting on their soon-to-be-illegal standing ribs of beef. Or on oxtail, like the one that's simmering downstairs with garlic, onions and red wine. When will I smell that smell again, and feast on the gelatine-rich bones that Dr Cunningham knows will be the death of me?

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