British Sizzle Over Ban On T-bone Steaks

Consumers vow not to give up favorite cuts of meat, despite scientists' warning.

Throughout the land, the beef police are out on the beat. But official determination to enforce a ban on T-bone steaks and other cuts dear to British meat-eaters' hearts is provoking a counter- (and an under-the-counter) insurgency.

The first shots in the battle, pitting trading-standards officers against butchers and their customers determined to continue the eating habits of centuries, were fired Dec. 16.

That was when a government order aimed at prohibiting, for health reasons, the sale of beef-on-the-bone products including T-bones, ribs, oxtails, and marrowbone came into force.

It was also the moment when what Brits like to call the "Dunkirk spirit" reignited. The orderly withdrawal from the coastal port of Dunkirk of British troops, under attack by Hitler's warplanes, enabled Britain to escape defeat in World War II. Ever since, seemingly hopeless campaigns have been given the "Dunkirk" label.

Defenders of British beef's integrity refuse, of course, to accept that their cause is hopeless. They may be right.

Inspectors sent around the country to monitor meat sales in shops and supermarkets are suggesting that the government ban will prove unenforceable. It's not hard to see why.

Twelve hours after the new regulations went into effect, an elderly couple eating lunch in a Sussex village pub paused over what looked suspiciously like braised oxtail and explained how they would cope with the new regulations.

"We have a dog," said the woman. "He has acquired a sudden liking for T-bone steak. I shall ask our butcher to satisfy his desires."

The husband added in a stage whisper: "And if that doesn't work, our butcher will sell us British beef and tell the inspectors that it came from Argentina."

For more than a year, the European Union has outlawed worldwide sales of British beef because of fears that it may be tainted with so-called "mad cow" disease. The latest additional food scare follows warnings from British scientists over beef cut from close to the animal's spinal cord.

Hours before the ban went into force, a group of cattle farmers arrived at 10 Downing Street, the prime minister's London residence, and handed a security policeman a large piece of prime rib.

Later, Prime Minister Tony Blair's spokesman said the meat had been thrown away because it was "potentially dangerous." Anyway, he said, it would be unlawful to eat it.

Conservative opposition leader William Hague took a different line. Early Tuesday morning, he walked into a tavern near London's Smithfield meat market and ordered a T-bone steak. His spokesman later said the bone had been removed "to conform with the law."

Officials at the Ministry of Agriculture insist that meat inspectors will keep watch on butchers and other outlets for meat. Judging by the comments of meat purveyors, they will have their work cut out.

For Paul Robinson, a fourth-generation butcher in a town near London, the ban "makes no sense." "We have taken a stand," he said as he wrapped a 10-pound rib of beef before handing it to a woman customer, who said she had driven 40 miles to make the purchase.

Meanwhile another aspect of the Dunkirk spirit is reemerging - the British capacity to joke about problems.

A tale is told of Margaret Thatcher summoning her Cabinet to lunch and telling the waiter, 'I'll have beef ... Nothing else. Just British beef.'

As her Cabinet looked on, the waiter asked, 'What about your vegetables?'

'They,' she said, casting an eye over her subordinates, 'will have beef, too.'

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