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British Ranchers See Long Road Back

August 8, 1999

STANFORD LE HOPE, England (AP) _ For farmer Ian Frood, the global ban on British beef exports due to fears of ``mad cow″ disease meant more than a plunge in profits and the forced slaughter of his herd of 100 cattle.

The 3-year embargo, which ended this month, brought an additional hardship _ record-keeping rules that force Frood to spend two hours each evening in front of a personal computer, updating data on the weight, diet, health, movements and reproductive habits of each animal in his new herd.

``If I didn’t have them,″ he says of his three PCs, ``I’d just go out and shoot myself. I couldn’t cope with the paperwork.″

Frood’s bookkeeping chores multiplied after fears of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, the medical name for ``mad cow″ disease, led the European Commission to ban exports of British beef in March 1996. The commission, which enforces rules for the European Union, acted after medical researchers linked the cattle disease to a new strain of the fatal human brain ailment, Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease.

The ban may be over, but cattle farmers and other members of the British beef industry have little reason to celebrate. They say exports will take years to recover to their pre-embargo level of 246,000 metric tons per year. Some argue that the additional steps they now must take to monitor their cattle make it too expensive for them to even bother trying to claw back overseas sales.

Each cow, bull and calf in Britain must now have a ``passport,″ a barcode and two identification tags _ one attached to each ear. Farmers can’t sell cattle more than 30 months old, yet smaller animals are more expensive to process.

Meatpackers can no longer sell organs and fat for use in animal feeds for domestic use, and slaughterhouses must get a special permit to prepare beef for export.

At present, only one slaughterhouse has such a permit, and last week it processed the first carcass of British beef destined for overseas markets since the export ban ended.

Yet relief at the official lifting of the ban turned to fury when the German government said it would not allow imports of British beef before the end of September, pending further assurances that the meat is safe to eat.

``It’s outrageous,″ Frood said, a military-style mustache quivering on his ruddy face.

Germany’s stance is just the latest humiliating setback for an industry that long prided itself on a tradition of quality.

Frood, 51, is the third generation of his family to farm. He’s an official in the National Farmers Union, holds a PhD in agriculture and worked for several years as a nutrition consultant.

He took up cattle farming in 1978 at a farm called Old Hall, an 800-acre spread with a 200-year old farmhouse near Stanford le Hope, 30 miles east of London. Today his wife Moira, daughter Helen and son Andrew all pitch in.

Frood used to sell many of his animals for export to Italy. The ban cut him off from this market, slashing his revenues by a third, or $48,000. It also created a glut of beef on the domestic market, depressing prices by about 30 percent and causing further strain for beef producers.

Frood’s herd of black and white cattle had to be killed and incinerated, and he has had to rely ever since on sales of wheat, barley and peas for the bulk of his income.

He also bales hay for other farmers and raises sheep. And Frood receives about $160,000 in annual government subsidies, half of that a grant for protecting sensitive wetlands on the farm.

``We ‘duck and dive’ to make a go of it,″ he said. ``We’re not a traditional farm.″

Frood has survived _ so far _ but the export ban has squeezed untold numbers of farmers, cattle markets and slaughterhouses out of business.

Tim Brassington, a livestock auctioneer, lost his last job when the cattle market that employed him closed due to low beef prices and the lack of exports. He found work in May at the Colchester Cattle Market, an hour’s drive northeast of Frood’s farm.

``I’m moving to Canada, I think, if this one goes,″ he said of his current job.

Slaughterhouse owner Joseph Cheale said the export ban cost him 40 percent of his sales overnight. Cheale Meats Ltd. in Brentwood, 25 miles east of London, responded by processing only pork.

``Beef export will never be as it used to,″ Cheale said.

After the beef ban took effect, Frood bought 90 new breeder cows and three stud bulls to provide calves for local sale. But he plans to focus on the domestic market and sees only bleak prospects for exports.

``A lot of my colleagues are more optimistic,″ he said, ``but that’s often from a position of ignorance.″

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