Beef crisis alters European appetites

This week EU leaders to discuss how to curb the 'mad cow' disease.

When Alain Ducasse, the most honored chef in France, opens his new restaurant here later this month, one longtime staple of French cuisine will be barred from his kitchen: beef.

At the other end of the culinary spectrum, Kentucky Fried Chicken opened its 500th outlet in Britain last week and announced plans for 300 more that will cater to "the move to white meat, especially chicken, by consumers" in the words of a KFC executive.

From school canteens in Sweden (where meatballs, the national dish, are off the menu) to abattoirs in Italy, "mad cow" disease is causing a continent-wide panic that is exposing profound shifts in the way Europeans view and eat their food.

Beef is at the center of the storm, as new cases of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) are discovered in countries that had boasted they were immune. The beef industry is threatened with catastrophe, and governments will have to find billions of dollars in cleanup and compensation costs.

But as consumers flee supermarket beef, they are seeking refuge in healthier, higher quality and safer foods that are transforming European dinner tables.

"People know now that they are what they eat," says Agathe Couvreur, a researcher at the Paris-based Research Centre for the Study and Observation of Lifestyles (CREDOC). "They are really convinced of the intimate link between the quality of what they eat and their health,"

Food safety

Food safety has become one of the "dominant subjects in the European Union," German Agriculture Minister Karl-Heinz Funke said over the weekend, announcing the creation of a new consumer affairs and food safety department in his ministry. And European heads of state will discuss ways of curbing the crisis at a summit in Nice, France, later this week.

The risks associated with eating beef are minuscule. Eighty people in Britain and two in France have contracted the fatal new variant of a disease, thought to be caused by eating BSE-contaminated meat. But coming in the wake of the discovery of dioxin-poisoned sump oil in Belgian chicken feed, the BSE scare has hit beef sales hard.

French wholesalers are reporting a 40 percent slump in sales since a batch of suspect meat reached supermarket shelves six weeks ago. Forty-five percent of French people have cut back or cut out their consumption of beef, according to a CREDOC study, and nearly a third of respondents in Germany told pollsters from the weekly Die Woche that they intend to do the same.

Hamburger sales drop

McDonald's has seen its hamburger sales in France drop by 25 percent. "But sales have shifted to chicken and salad dishes," said McDonald's France chief executive officer, Denis Hennequin, "so the effect on our turnover has not been significant."

That pattern shift is a snapshot of what has been happening to European shopping baskets over more than a decade, and that will go on happening, nutrition and consumer experts say.

Underlying the changes in European eating habits, they say, has been an increasing awareness of health, and a mass movement away from high-fat foods. Even before BSE broke out, "beef consumption was declining [in Britain] because people felt that one way to reduce their fat intake was to cut their beef consumption," explains Sarah Schenker, a nutritionist at the British Nutrition Foundation in London.

Fighting to improve the image of their product, farmers and butchers have been busy breeding leaner cattle and cutting away more fat to appeal to consumers. Lean cuts of beef in Britain contain 30 percent less fat than they did 20 years ago, according to the British Meat and Livestock Commission, a body set up by farmers to promote British beef.

"The strong pressure comes mainly from the supermarkets," says Kim Matthews, a meat technologist with the commission. "They present what sells best, and that is lean meat. What gets left on the shelves at the end of the day are the cuts with a high fat content."

But people are not just eating leaner beef, they are eating less. British beef consumption per person has fallen 23 percent since 1988, according to figures from the European statistical agency Eurostat, and is off by 35 percent over the same period in Germany. In Europe as a whole, per capital consumption has fallen by 14 percent over the past 12 years.

Consumers are turning to different sorts of food. Since she came to Paris 21 years ago, Patricia Wells says she has seen "a pretty dramatic" change in French eating habits. Ms. Wells, a food writer and restaurant critic for The International Herald Tribune, found one fish shop on her street when she arrived here. Today, there are three.

In Scandinavia, people are turning away from meat toward vegetables, according to Lars Jonsson, an official with the Swedish Consumers Association. And while convenience foods are growing more and more popular, as they are throughout Europe, "the frozen-food sections have lots of new dishes designed for people who need to cut down on fat," Mr. Jonsson has noticed.

The discriminating shopper

Even more traditionally minded Europeans, for whom eating remains more than microwaving a frozen dinner, are more careful about what they buy, consumer analysts say.

"Consumers are seeking out organic produce, or food whose quality is guaranteed somehow," says Ms. Couvreur. "They want reassuring ... and more and more people are saying that it is better to buy less of a higher quality than to buy lots of something they are not sure about."

When it comes to beef, that means buying meat from animals that have not been fed on meat-and-bone meal, slaughterhouse waste that has long been used to boost the protein content of animal feed.

At their small Left Bank butcher's shop, Olivier Facquet and his wife, Patricia, sell meat from only one farmer they know personally, who guarantees his animals eat only grass or vegetable-based supplements. On the wall, customers can inspect the labels that come with beef carcasses specifying the animal's date of birth, I.D. number, race, and date of slaughter. "They tell us everything except the cow's name, and if we wanted to, we could ask that," says Ms. Facquet.

Mr. Facquet has seen his beef sales fall by 20 percent over the past month, but he is confident that when the panic subsides, "it will be back to normal again for us," because shoppers will start being more discriminating, and choose beef that has been raised naturally.

"Almost everyone has come out of [the BSE crisis] a loser," says Couvreur. "Consumers have lost, farmers have lost, governments have lost. But if there are any winners, they will be from the high-quality sector. For them, all this is positive."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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