Magazine article The Spectator

The Real Beef Scandal

Magazine article The Spectator

The Real Beef Scandal

Article excerpt

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, tenderness, 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 reestablishing a healthy export market, because the limp-wristed British government representatives who negotiated the lifting of the export ban discreetly capitulated, favouring a quick fix that would provide 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-homed steer so famous in paintings of the time. We can also take credit 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 Donald 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 L14 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 37strong 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 Russell. Over the next three years he rebuilt the business selling to UK caterers and via mail order. …

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