LONDON — At Tesco, a leading supermarket chain, cuts of prime British beef have been shoved aside and replaced by ostrich steaks imported from the United States.
Butchers around Britain feature kangaroo meat from Australia in prime window space, where roasts of beef would have been only a few months ago. And Britain's Vegetarian Society reports record numbers of inquiries for advice on how to switch to a meatless diet.
Jolted by government scientists' claims in March that cattle with so-called "mad cow disease" are a health risk - and the subsequent European Union (EU) ban on British beef exports - consumers in Britain have forsaken long-established eating patterns and are making forays into new foods, from crocodile steaks to strictly vegetarian dishes.
Beef has long been one of the most basic staples of the British diet. Roast beef and steak and kidney pie - followed by Yorkshire pudding - are among the national favorites and are nearly synonymous with "Britishness."
But Britons are apparently only too quick to dispense with culinary tradition: Food suppliers, pressure groups, and government officials say the new eating habits, triggered by fears about beef contamination, are likely to be permanent because public concern over food production methods refuses to go away.
Since the EU imposed its ban, Britain's Vegetarian Society says, telephone inquiries from the public have tripled to 2,000 a week.
Philip Saunders of the Meat and Livestock Commission, which monitors meat consumption, says sales of beef, measured nationally, quickly fell off by 30 per cent in March, with many people switching to lamb, pork, and chicken, and "a fair number going over to a vegetarian diet."
Saunders says beef sales are still down by around 20 percent, with ground beef and minced meat particularly unpopular.
Even sales of dairy products have been affected. The Organic Milk Suppliers Cooperative, which claims 80 percent of the British market, reports an upsurge in customer requests for "organic" milk from cows that were raised free of pesticides, fertilizers, and feeds that contain animal remnants.
The demand is so great, says Sally Bagnall, the cooperative's organizer, that organic milk from continental Europe is being imported "by the tankerful."
Underlining the swerve away from beef and beef products, booksellers report a big increase in the sales of vegetarian titles.
At Harrods, London's famous Kinghtsbridge department store, the manager of the book section has had to double the amount of shelf space for books about vegetarian cuisine because of an upsurge in customer demand.
Sales of Mollie Katzen's "Moosewood Cookbook," widely regarded as a "bible" of vegetarian cuisine, have shot up by 600 percent, says Waterstone's, a leading British bookstore chain.
Tesco reports widespread defections from beef and a marked swing by its customers toward more exotic meats.
Ostrich steaks and burgers
In May, after noting that shoppers were walking past displays of steak and minced beef, Tesco became Britain's first supermarket chain to offer customers ostrich steaks and ostrich burgers.
A Tesco spokesman says, "Most of our ostrich meat is coming from the US - where we can be assured of reliable supplies. It is a good substitute for beef. We are offering our customers advice on how to cook it, and we believe it is here to stay."
Some smaller butchers in London, aware that ostrich steaks retail at about $20 per pound and are therefore beyond the means of many shoppers, have decided that kangaroo meat, which sells at roughly half that price, is a more attractive alternative.
Kangaroo hops onto plates
The butchers have reduced display space for beef and are selling kangaroo steaks imported from Australia instead.
"Some people hesitate about eating kangaroo, but when they taste it they tend to drop their inhibitions," says a butcher in Bute Street, in the heart of London's West End.
Freedown Foods, a specialist meat supplier, has begun offering customers crocodile steaks from Zimbabwe.
According to government figures, only 3 out of every 100 Britons is a vegetarian. But the Vegetarian Society contests those figures and insists that since the beef scare the situation has changed drastically.
Samantha Clavert of the Society says a Gallup survey in April 1995 showed that 4.5 percent of adults claim to be vegetarian. This figure rose to 5 percent when the beef ban was announced.
Since then, she says, a poll for the Guardian newspaper shows 7 percent of people refusing to eat any meat at all, and 30 percent refusing to eat beef products.
There is a marked difference between the latest meat-eating patterns in England and in Scotland. In Glasgow, the Waterstone's manager has been quoted as saying: "People up here are not reacting in quite the same way. There is a perception that Scottish beef is safer." The incidence of infected beef in Scotland is much lower than in England.
But for those diehard beef-lovers, steak from a breed known as Aberdeen Angus is proving popular. Many British cows receive animal-based feed, which was blamed for carrying the "mad cow disease." But the finest Aberdeen Angus herds feed almost exclusively on grass.