THE REAL BEEF SCANDAL
People all over the world want good British because of our limp-wristed government
IN the next day or two plenty of time will be spent on naming and shaming the BSE culprits, and deciding who was more at fault, the farmers' mad cows or the Tory ministers' bum steers. Not much will be said about the future of the beef business, and that is because there probably isn't one.
Just over a year ago, the ban on beef exports was 'lifted' by the EU. During the negotiations the government gave in to such swingeing demands from other member states that a mere 500 tonnes of beef has succeeded in leaving the country for Europe in the last year. And if we hoped to remind the world of the eating quality — taste, ten- derness, the sheer mouth-watering good flavour — of premium British beef, which once impressed every connoisseur in the world, those 500 tonnes might as well have stayed here. The export ban on our most toothsome beef was barely lifted at all.
The best beef cattle in the world are of British origin. The Aberdeen Angus, the Hereford, the Highland, the Shorthorn, the Welsh Black and the Devon — those hardy and thick-skinned, pasture-grazed herds that were once sought after by butchers and chefs all over the world. Now, alas, there is hardly any hope of re- establishing a healthy export market, because the limp-wristed British govern- ment representatives who negotiated the lifting of the export ban discreetly capitu- lated, favouring a quick fix that would pro- vide flattering headlines. It could be the end of what was a proud industry.
Britain exported cattle to Europe before the Romans arrived; the late 18th century saw the development of the meat-heavy and rectangular short-horned steer so famous in paintings of the time. We can also take cred- it for teaching the rest of the world to eat beef cooked rare. In the 1920s the Emperor of Japan was so impressed by the height and girth of a group of British delegates that he personally changed the existing dietary law for Japanese Buddhists, adding beef to the repertoire of fish and vegetables.
The failure of our prime-beef export business to pick up where it left off after the export ban was lifted last year is not because foreign aficionados do not trust or like our prime beef. Far from it — they are begging to have it back. But the beef they want is not what they will get. Beef that has been passed, under the new five-point Florence Agreement, as safe for export will never taste as good, nor be as delicate a chew as the rosbif of the past.
Five years ago the meat company Don- ald Russell was supplying Scottish beef to 20 Michelin-starred restaurants in France. If you stayed in Raffles in Singapore, or the Mandarin in Hong Kong, its beef was on the menu there too. The company had a turnover of £14 million. It was busy cracking the Middle Eastern market and winning awards everywhere, when disaster struck. On 27 March 1996 the EU banned exports of UK beef and live cattle. Donald Russell lost 90 per cent of its business overnight and sacked 28 out of its 37- strong staff, mostly highly skilled butchers.
Donald Russell buys pedigree beef cattle from farmers who feed them on a natural, mainly grass, diet. It oversees the 'finishing', the vital last few weeks before a steer or heifer is killed, to make sure the correct amount of fat is on the animal. 'The fat is the carrier of the flavour — the meat must be marbled,' says Hans Baumann, the (Swiss) managing director of Donald Rus- sell. Over the next three years he rebuilt the business selling to UK caterers and via mail order. But when there was a hint that the export ban would be lifted — he was not cheering, but lobbying heavily against it.
The five-point Florence Agreement that formed the basis of the deal to resume UK exports stipulated that bonemeal feed was, of course, out. Beef cattle now needed pass- ports, and there would be computerised sys- tems tracing animals. Cattle over 30 months old should be slaughtered and rendered (4.2 `Last one there's a rotten egg.' million subsequently were), and specified risk material — spinal cord, brains and such- like — removed. This was taken on board by an industry that could hardly argue. But a stipulation was added that finally convinced ten of the member states to vote in favour of the lifting of the ban, which demanded that all meat destined for Europe should pass only through Specially Dedicated Abattoirs, authorised to handle meat for export.
In SDAs export cattle cannot be killed on the same day as those bound for the UK market. Meat must be kept in a locked fridge. It must travel in separate trucks. For Donald Russell this means it must buy meat for export direct from the abattoir. 'We are not involved in the breeding, feeding and fin- ishing of the animals or the maturing of the meat,' says Baumann.
The meat we buy will have spent no more than four days maturing before being boned and bagged up in plastic bags where it cannot properly age. It must be delivered in great lumps to the foreign buyers — pre- viously it was cut by expert Scottish butch- ers.' Try selling that to some terrifying perfectionist of a French chef, or anyone else who likes the best beef, for that matter — particularly while the pound is strong. `We now have to tell our old clients there is no continuity in the quality,' Baumann tells me. 'They all want the best Scottish beef and it is not available.'
There are only three SDAs in Britain and Northern Ireland and, they arc highly expensive to run. Farmers and dealers pre- fer local slaughterhouses where they have more control. They know what time the animal will be killed and if it will be prop- erly rested; lower stress levels for animals help their meat to eat well. They can check that males and females are kept separate — it is distressing for animals to be mixed. They choose how long the carcass hangs and then have it cut to their client's needs.
Now that the incidence of BSE in Euro- pean herds is being revealed — the French, Portuguese, Swiss, Belgians and Danish all have a problem (Portuguese beef exports have been banned) — there is a chance to get a fairer deal from the EU. French agri- cultural politicians are digging themselves into a deeper hole every day, claiming to pro- tect their own consumers from infected British beef by refusing to import it. But based on risk-analysis French beef is now more dangerous than ours.
Worse still, French beef is over here because there are no restrictions on its export. The solution is not, repeat not, to ban French beef. But here, surely, is the negotiating tool Nick Brown, the agricul- ture minister, needs to remove the red tape that is presently choking production of the best beef in Britain. Because there are peo- ple all over the world who remember it, and who want it back.
Rose Prince writes the 'Farm to Fork' col- umn in the Daily Express and cooks for The Spectator.