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Mad Cow Scare Forces Quick Changes at Fast Food Chains

March 28, 1996

LONDON (AP) _ The mad cow scare has left huge stockpiles of frozen hamburgers at McDonald’s and Wimpy, patties that face an uncertain future after the fast-food giants banned British beef.

``It is more than likely everything will be destroyed,″ said Katherine Young, a spokeswoman for Wimpy International Ltd. ``You’re going to be looking at millions of burgers.″

McDonald’s is not sure what to do with its unwanted Mcmeat as Britain’s biggest fast-food restaurants wrestles with the logistical difficulties of switching to non-British beef.

``They’re still in the freezer,″ said McDonald’s spokeswoman Veronica Foster. ``Our first concern is to get the beef back in the restaurants.″

Both McDonald’s and Wimpy, the No. 1 and No. 3 burger chains in Britain, plan to have beef back on the menu today after three days of doing burgerless business.

``Obviously sales have been affected. A big part of our menu has not been on sale, but many of us customers are staying with us,″ Foster said.

Many, but not all.

``I won’t go to McDonalds any more. They’re not serving burgers,″ said London cabbie Pete Hambri, who headed to Burger King instead.

The switchover has thrown the burger companies into a frenzy, with trucks running all over the country to pick up British burgers than won’t be sold, processing plants running flat-out to make burgers from foreign beef and workers rushing to stock the restaurants with the meat from anywhere but Britain.

``I’ve got more chance winning the lottery than getting mad cow,″ said Barry Peterson, who bought a McDonald’s chicken burger in central London.

The No. 2 player, Burger King, reacted more slowly than its rivals to the crisis fueled by the government’s acknowledgement that several cases of an incurable brain disease could be linked to British beef.

Burger King said it will keep serving British beef until it runs out, although it plans by Saturday to be making Whoppers exclusively with beef from other European countries.

The flight from British beef began March 20, when the government dropped its bombshell about a potential link between mad cow disease and the fatal human equivalent, Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease.

Politicians from Prime Minister John Major on down insisted British beef was safe and said they plan to keep eating it, but worldwide reaction was swift and uncompromising.

More than 20 countries banned British beef, and the European Union on Wednesday ordered Britain to stop exporting cattle, beef and beef products.

Executives at Wimpy spent several nervous days assessing the situation, then carefully monitored customer orders last Saturday. They found up to half of their beef-eating customers had switched to chicken, fish, pork or vegetarian bean burgers.

On Sunday, Wimpy executives pulled all British beef out of their supply system.

Considering all the burgers in the 271 Wimpy restaurants, plus those in the company’s frozen food distribution system and manufacturing plant, untold millions of patties are being stockpiled in a freezer depot. They will likely wind up in an incinerator unless the government can assure their safety before the meat gets too old to serve.

Wimpy moved quickly to buy beef in Ireland, with smaller amounts coming from Holland and France. It would not comment on whether foreign beef dealers took advantage of the situation by raising prices.

Wimpy had no plans to increase the retail price and planned to swallow any short-term cost increases, Young said.

McDonald’s also announced Sunday it was yanking British beef off the menus at its 660 British restaurants and switching to other sources. McDonald’s was too busy trying to get beef back on the menu to discuss the logistics of the crisis Wednesday.

Neither company would comment on how much the decision to stop serving British beef has cost them.

Burger King, which announced Monday it was switching to foreign beef, was cagier about how its customers responded, although it said some were still eating British burgers at its 382 British restaurants.

``We’ve seen a doubling of chicken sales,″ said Burger King spokeswoman Alli Millitch. ``I don’t have the numbers of beef sales.″

She was unable to explain why Burger King would comment only on chicken sales during a crisis that threatens Britain’s entire beef industry.

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