LEADING ARTICLE : Still roasting

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The Independent Online
The drift back to beef has started. Consumers have begun to cross the picket lines in their minds and return to the beef shelves. Helped by low prices, sales of beef are back to 85 per cent of their level before the BSE scare began. Yet the industry is still in trouble.

Slaughterhouses hold unsold meat worth pounds 132m. The barons in Brussels are sticking to their export ban: nary a roast beef and mustard sandwich can leave British shores. Listen and you will hear the entire beef industry, from farmers to slaughterhouses, meat processors to exporters, screaming with pain.

Enter Douglas Hogg. Faced with an unresolved crisis of consumer confidence and an industry still collapsing around his ears, one might have expected the Secretary of State for Agriculture to unveil a strategy to restore confidence and demand. Some hope.

Yesterday he announced just a bit more compensation for farmers and slaughterhouses. Almost a month after the scare began, the Government's main strategy is to keep the beef industry going in the hope that British and European shoppers will change their minds. This may be sufficient to bring the crisis to an end, but only with some luck.

Ministers have already announced a limited cull of beef cattle more than 30 months old. Elderly dairy cattle will be kept out of the food chain. Yesterday he announced plans for "quality assurance schemes" to clearly label beef from BSE-free herds. If beef sales are already back to 85 per cent of their pre-scare level, a few more months may bring them back to normal, as consumers become bored of the boycott and inured to the risk. EU officials have already been heard to concede that British beef is safe: so the export ban may prove unsustainable too.

This optimism is likely to prove premature. In the long run demand will inevitably be affected by public perception of the safety of the industry. Enough families across Europe have been unnerved by the BSE scare to stay away from British beef for a long time to come.

Moreover, this kind of approach suggests a dangerous government complacency about consumer concerns. It may not be easy for anyone to assess consumer attitudes except by waiting for their reaction delivered through the market. Yet we live in an age of consumer power; greater attempts to anticipate their concerns and respond swiftly to disquiet could save everyone a lot of heartache.

As long as shoppers suspect that government is on the side of the producers, and that no-one is standing up for their interests, crises in confidence and food scares are bound to blow up again. Splitting the Ministry for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food into separate farming and consumer departments is only a start. Making it clear that consumers have a route into public policy making should help give more focus to their views. Consumers are powerful and volatile beasts, as the Government learnt to its cost this month. It would be wise to show them more respect.