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Beef back on many council menus

The only children in the world who are served British beef at primary school live in 40 per cent of UK education authorities who have lifted the ban on the meat.

Seventy-one authorities allow beef on school menus and the country appears to be split with councils in rural areas generally moving more quickly to reintroduce the meat than their urban counterparts.

There is still a worldwide ban on British beef and fears surfaced this month about the possible transmission of the new form of CJD, which has been linked to mad cow disease, through blood transfusions.

At the height of the BSE scare two years ago, 170 education authorities in England, Scotland and Wales stopped offering beef. By last week 71 had lifted the ban.

According to the Meat and Livestock Commission 24 authorities allow beef to be served in their secondary schools while a further 91 authorities still forbid it in both primaries and secondaries.

John Collinge, professor of neuro-genetics at Imperial College, London, and an expert in BSE and CJD, told The Times earlier this year that he would be chary of giving children beef or beef products. The official line is that children are not at special risk, but, he said: "This offers only limited reassurance. It means there is an absence of proven evidence that children are at particular risk, rather than there is evidence of an absence of risk."

The commission's statistics suggest that 57 per cent of authorities in London, 25 per cent in Scotland and 24 per cent in southern England are still not serving beef or beef products. In the North-east and North-west 81 per cent of authorities are standing by the ban.

However, North Yorkshire with its strong farming community, has bucked the trend and, following a ballot of parents, all bar 30 of its primary schools serve beef.

Steve Smith, the county's information officer, said: "About half the schools in the county decided to re-introduce beef a year ago but, until the ballot this summer, the ban remained in 130 primaries."

"The situation will be reviewed by heads, governors and parents at a later date. And although beef is back on most dinner menus, children are offered other alternatives," he added.

Across the border in the City of York the story is different. A survey of 500 parents showed that a significant number of them were unhappy about the re-introduction of beef or beef products and the ban which has been in place since April last year is to continue.

Philip Wells, the city's assistant director of education services, said: "We are continuing to monitor public opinion, which is not clear cut. The beef question will be considered again before Christmas when the views of parents will be taken into account, as will the scientific information available."

Members of the Meat and Livestock Commission claim to have been instrumental in persuading schools to drop the ban.

Phil Saunders, the commission's spokesperson, said: "We have presented written information to councils and Local Authority Catering Association members which include details of how the food chain is safeguarded and menu development," he said.

Councillors in Cheshire voted last week to drop the county council's 17-month ban in schools and social services-run centres.

Albert Turnock, a Conservative councillor who is also a beef farmer, attacked the ban for having added to the problems of local farmers. He said: "The concern for the health of youngsters reflected the hype rather than the facts."

Councillors, mainly from the Labour group, had voted for the ban to continue, claiming they wanted more reassurances about the safety of meat.

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