Letter from Prague

How many of you out there - in Europe at least - have given up eating beef? I wonder. What with all the scares concerning BSE and the human variant CJD filtering over from Britain to mainland Europe and what with our knowledge of the terrible death that sufferers endure, who could really blame you?

In fact, I'm surprised that McDonalds - either here or anywhere in Europe - are still open for business. I remember vividly when the BSE crisis first reared its ugly head in Britain. After a lot of adverse publicity, McDonalds - that bastion of American commercial imperialism - started to put up signs behind their counters, alongside the pictures of the Filet o' Fish menu. They read something along the lines of 'McDonald's no longer uses British beef'.

No chance of sticking it out on that one. Ronald McDonald decided to stand by the buck instead of the beleaguered British beef farmer, and I suppose that it would be difficult to blame him for that stance. It might have just been a bit more tactful, though. had these signs appeared in Paris or Rome than in London and Manchester.

The way we perceive it at the moment is that Britain farmers have got their house in order and, lucky enough to be alerted early on the problem. The rest of Europe are suffering the consequences of failing to learn from the Brits. Perhaps the only safe place to eat beef would be in India, where you actually can't.

What about the Czech Republic, then? Are Czech farmers to be believed when they say that none of their cattle have been fed bone meal since the early 90s? Is Czech beef really safer than French or German?

One of the things that any foreigner who spends a long amount of time in the Czech Republic will notice is the distinct lack of grazing farm animals. In Britain, sheep and cattle can be seen in fields not far from the centres of towns and cities. In the Czech Republic, I can drive from Prague the 80 km or so to Hradec Kralove without seeing a solitary farm animal. Perhaps a goat, tied up to the side of a fence, or a couple of chickens in what appears to be the back garden of a house.

I remember a few years back when I went for a weekend away close to Tabor. My companion and I spent a whole day just walking between villages and hamlets - stopping in at the local pub to sample the local beer and food. I remember hearing the baas of sheep and the moos of cows and baying of goats all around me. Not once, though, in the entire two days, did I manage to clap eyes on a single farm animal. In fact, it was a little bit disconcerting.

It fixes the idea in your mind that farming in the Czech Republic is all battery based. Now we all know about battery hens laying eggs, but I've never heard of battery sheep or cows. In fact, I've never even seen footage on TV of such a practices. Until then, I was under the probably naive impression that cows lived in fields and munched grass. I thought that sheep lived alongside them in the next field, and ate nothing even remotely resembling spines and brain stems.

The simple truth is that the practices that allowed BSE to transport itself along the food chain where based upon efficiency. Buying bone meal feed was cheaper than allowing cattle to graze naturally. Variant CJD was born of man's desire to make as much money for as little effort as humanly possible.

For this simple reason I would declare Czech beef to be among the safest in all of Europe. The reasoning that allowed BSE to become variant CJD would not be as easily adopted here as it would have been in more traditionally capitalist parts of the world.

Saying that, I've also lived in Russia. Each week I would go shopping in the meat market, where dogs would chew or lick at the joints which where then put back on the shelves for sale.

Why do we even bother worrying about these things?