Will Europeans stomach le rosbif?

British beef has been maligned abroad like no other product. Now the European ban has finally been lifted, Alex Black looks at the efforts being made to restore the meat’s credibility, and popularity, on the Continent

Back in 1995, Britain exported 274,000 tonnes of fresh and frozen beef, 426,000 calves and 10,500 cattle, generating revenues of £600m. But in March the following year, the European Commission imposed an immediate ban on the exports, over fears of BSE, or ‘mad cow disease’. It decimated the industry in a stroke.

The UK’s Meat and Livestock Commission (MLC) has since led preparations for the lifting of the ban. Its four bodies – the British Pig Executive, the English Beef and Lamb Executive, Hybu Cig Cymru/Meat Promotion Wales, and Quality Meat Scotland – have been backed by organisations ranging from government departments to the National Farmers’ Union (NFU).

Losing business through poor management is one thing, but disease is another matter entirely. Remi Fourrier, manager of the MLC’s office in France, says it is difficult to think of a worse scenario. ‘In France, in 1996,’ he says, ‘British beef was poison.’

So now the ban has ended – it was partially lifted in 2003, but with too many restrictions to make exports practical on an industrial scale – are Europeans prepared to eat our beef?

Convincing the Continent
‘In Germany they rely on the high standards of the national food industry,’ says Martina Pennekamp, deputy MD of Edelman Germany. ‘British food as a whole has a low reputation, and British beef has to regain trust,
especially with consumers.’

But in France, Fourrier reports a marked improvement in British beef’s reputation: ‘Butchers and suppliers were telling us the consumer didn’t want British beef. We didn’t think this was right, so we did some research.
‘Just over 50 per cent of French consumers said they would buy British beef. That may not be a strong majority, but it is nonetheless a majority.

Although we don’t know for sure what they’ll do when it’s put on the plate in front of them, the message is getting through that a British cow undergoes the same tests as a French one.’

As Fourrier points out, rebuilding the image of UK beef will be costly. So far, the MLC has been focusing on the quality of the product, promoting it in France as ‘St George beef’. He explains: ‘Over the past two years we’ve been offering British beef to firms in France for their corporate dinners, and the feedback has been good. We’ve also done tastings at trade shows and produced a book, Le Rosbif, covering Franco-English trade relations over the years, as well as cooking, beef production and breeds of cow. Since February we’ve been sending the book to chefs, butchers and journalists.’

Back in the UK, the English Beef and Lamb Executive has a two-year budget of £400,000 to spend on the promotion of beef – and it has not been idle. The day the ban was lifted in March, the executive’s chairman John Cross – with Lord Bach, minister at the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – hosted a dinner at Milan’s Four Seasons Hotel to ‘show heavyweight Italian gastronomes what they had been missing’.

The countries of the UK are emphasising their own regional identities as opposed to their Britishness. Meat Trades Journal deputy editor Keren Sall says Meat Promotion Wales is also targeting the Italian market. ‘It’s got a deal to sponsor the Italian rugby team until 2008, and has taken on a PR agency in Milan,’ she adds.

Quality Meat Scotland communications director Louise Welsh says it is still very much trading on the premium brand value of ‘Scotch beef’. She explains: ‘We took samples to trade shows even during the ban to make sure we didn’t lose that image.’

Mixed attitudes
Market development consultancy Food From Britain has for the past nine years used Storm Communications in the UK to position it as the expert on British exports. Catelijine Gerlag, PR manager of the group’s Netherlands
office, says Holland’s attitude towards UK beef is more ‘level-headed’ than that of, say, France or Germany.

‘The crucial thing is to get big shops to supply UK beef. Dutch consumers have faith in their supermarkets – once it’s on the shelves, they’ll buy it,’ she says. ‘We’ve been working with journalists from top Dutch food magazine Culinaire Saisonnier and have had excellent coverage so far.’

The NFU has also worked hard in anticipation of the ban being lifted.

National chairman for livestock Thomas Binns says the union ensured its campaigning retained momentum as the ban dragged on for ten years: ‘There has been a lot of work behind the scenes. Money was put aside to promote beef in anticipation of the ban being lifted – we’re emphasising beef’s safety and the fact that British consumers now eat more beef than they did in 1996.’

Meanwhile, events beyond UK industry’s control could benefit British exporters. Foot-and-mouth scares in South America, and a general shortage of supplies for manufactured meat products, could benefit Britain.

The message that British beef is a safe, quality product is, it seems, slowly winning over the sceptics. Some would argue that if the French are prepared to eat our beef, the battle is well on the way to being won.

From beef to ban – and back again
* March 1996 Worldwide export of British beef is banned by EC over fears of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) – aka ‘mad cow disease’.
* July 1999 Europe allows exports of British boneless beef and products to resume on 1 August.
* August 1999 Partial lifting of the export ban, but France and Germany refuse to take British beef.
* November 1999 Europe’s food safety commissioner, David Byrne, takes France to court for its refusal. The French prime minister responds by threatening to take the EU to court.
* March 2000 Germany agrees to lift its ban, but France sticks to its guns. 
* December 2001 The European Court of Justice finds in favour of France, which continues its ban.
* September 2002 French food safety agency declares UK beef safe.
* September 2005 The EC declares
UK beef as safe as that from the rest of the European Union. Talks begin for a total lifting of the ban, including the transport of live animals.
* March 2006 Europe allows total trade to resume. Industry campaigns to rebuild confidence go into overdrive.

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