Food Fright and European Traveling

April 18, 2001 The New York Times by Marian Burros

ONE night last month, a London hostess received a call from some Americans she was entertaining at dinner the next evening. They wanted to know what she would serve. "Beef Wellington," she said proudly.

There was a pause on the line before the American said she and her husband couldn't possibly eat British beef and they would have to cancel. The hostess quickly offered to chuck the beef, and organic chicken became the centerpiece of the meal.

A small social crisis, perhaps, but one that illustrates the confusion over real and imagined hazards of foot-and-mouth disease and mad cow disease in Europe, and especially in England, where tourists are staying away in droves. Last month, The Guardian newspaper reported that Easter tourism was down 75 percent.

Yet beyond worrisome road closings and the absence of a few menu items, it's not likely that foot-and-mouth or mad cow disease will have much of an effect on visitors to Western Europe this year. The biggest problem, really, is limited access to the countryside in some parts of Britain and a few places in the Netherlands. Crossing the border into some countries where travelers might be asked to step through disinfectant to prevent the transmission of foot-and-mouth disease hardly seems much of an impediment, though psychologically, it's apparently enough to make some stay away.

Travelers have every right to be confused. For years, there have been news reports about deaths from mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy. More recently, there were warnings to avoid contact with cows, pigs, sheep, goats and deer, particularly in England, because of foot-and-mouth disease.

But many travelers fail to distinguish between foot-and-mouth, which poses no risk to humans [Common misconception], and mad cow disease, which can be transmitted to humans by eating beef infected with it.

Europeans seem to be coming to terms with mad cow disease. Some have given up meat entirely; beef consumption has dropped 30 percent throughout Europe since last year, according to the United States Agriculture Department.

Other Europeans say they continue to eat meat because stringent rules are in place to keep infected cows out of the food supply. All cows more than 30 months old must be tested before slaughter. Mad cow disease has not been found in cows under 30 months. Animal parts that contain central nervous system tissue (consuming that tissue is the most likely way the disease is spread, experts say) have been banned in all but three countries -- Austria, Finland and Sweden -- where mad cow disease has never appeared. The ban includes brains, the spinal cord and cuts of meat that contain bone that is part of the spinal cord like the T-bone, from cows, goats and sheep. (T-bone steaks, though, are available in Britain because government inspection regulations have been in effect for several years.)

Although foot-and-mouth disease is epidemic in England, only scattered cases have been discovered in parts of France, the Netherlands and in one county in Ireland. Spain, Luxembourg, Belgium, Portugal, Sweden, Finland, Austria, Italy, Denmark, Germany and Greece remain untouched.

All shipment of live cattle, sheep, goats and pigs is banned in all countries that belong to the European Union. And there is an import ban on unpasteurized cheeses from England and from parts of France and the Netherlands. Those restrictions are to prevent the spread of foot-and-mouth, not because the food is hazardous to humans.

Beyond the lack of certain fresh French cheeses outside France and the disappearance of the famous bistecca Fiorentina (similar to the T-bone) from Florence, restaurantgoers might notice some subtle differences. Prices for fish are up all over Europe. Vegetarian dishes are appearing on more menus, and organic food is more popular than ever. "Organic sales are going through the roof, and there are a lot more vegetarians," said Faith Heller Willinger, an expert on Italian food and the author of "Eating in Italy," (William Morrow, 1998).

Liz Cannon, of the British Tourist Authority office in New York, said the free vegetarian guides are disappearing quickly.

Despite the downturn in tourism, Paul Levy, a restaurant critic and freelance journalist in London, said it was still hard to get into Gordon Ramsay, London's three-star Michelin restaurant of the moment. But out in the English countryside, tourism is steeply down. For example, Paul Henderson, who owns Gidleigh Park, a country house hotel in Devon, where there has been a heavy incidence of foot-and-mouth disease, said business had fallen 60 or 70 percent since the foot-and-mouth epidemic took hold.

Still, those who live in Europe say much of the initial panic is subsiding.

"Steaks and fries are still very popular fare in Europe, though those looking for big French or Tuscan steaks with the bones attached will have to look elsewhere," said Patricia Wells, restaurant critic for The International Herald Tribune. "For those who would rather not eat beef, there is plenty of choice everywhere. Few restaurants have completely taken beef off their menus, although many have played up fish, poultry and vegetables. There is no problem with cheeses. Daily French life goes on as usual."

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