THE BSE RISK : Markets reports a stampede to avoid beef

Will Bennett finds British meat off the menu for wholesalers
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At Hereford market, normally bustling on a Monday, the farming industry's worst nightmares were confirmed yesterday. Not a single wholesaler turned up and no cattle were sold.

Most farmers stayed away as well because the auctioneers had warned them of the impending disaster.

Monday is the town's main wholesale market of the week and usually about 200 prime cattle worth pounds 150,000 to pounds 160,000 are sold. Richard Grainger, managing director of the market, said: "It has been a complete disaster. Sellers kept their animals away but we assisted with that because we contacted the prime buyers who all said they were not attending. We could not find one who was looking to buy any cattle so we told the farmers it was in their best interests to stay away."

The picture was the same elsewhere as the market for British beef collapsed in the wake of the BSE scare. A further blow for farmers came when Wimpy, the fast-food chain, followed McDonald's and took British beef off the menu at its 270 outlets.

Shoppers are avoiding beef in any form. Jerry Nathan, a salesman at the gourmet chain Simply Sausages, said beef sausage sales had fallen by about 60 per cent since the Government's announcement last week that infected beef might be linked to CJD, the human form of BSE. At Smithfield meat market in London prices for heifers, young female cows which are normally the most valuable cattle, were 37 per cent below those paid before the BSE scare began last week. But this estimate was based on a virtually non-existent market.

Traders at Smithfield said prices of imported beef had risen 25 per cent as sales of home-grown beef ground to a virtual halt. Brian Howes, a meat cutter, said: "People are not buying beef for love nor money."

But in contrast wholesale prices of spring lamb increased by up to 50 per cent to 180p per pound. Poultry prices also leapt by 25 per cent to 80p per pound while pork was marked up 10 per cent to 75p per pound.

At the livestock market at Detling, in Kent, the cattle pens were virtually empty for the auction yesterday. Within two days of the Government's announcement the price of beef had plummeted by a quarter. At the auction yesterday just two farmers brought in their cattle for sale. Normally there would 50 to 60.

Wimpy confirmed it was banning British beef from its outlets. Max Wolfenden, managing director, said: "Because of the confusion in the market place with our customers and the serious concerns they have been expressing we are having to move out of British beef to other sources."

"We have no scientific reason to do it. On a personal issue, I still think British beef is an excellent product, but I'm not forcing my view on our customers."