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CURWOOD: Late last year, Mad Cow disease, also known as BSE, came to Germany. Demand for beef plummeted in the wake of a government report. Almost overnight the number of vegetarians doubled and alternative meat sources appeared. But traditions of meat eating go deep in Germany, from sausage to schnitzel, and as the reports of Mad Cow disease have ebbed, palates have been turning back to more familiar flavors. Michael Muhlberger has our report, from Cologne, Germany.
MUHLBERGER: A group of curious pre-schoolers crowd into a small room, lined from floor to ceiling with large wooden incubators. Farmer Ingrid Bellbecher points to rows of white eggs the size of her hand.
BELLBECHER: [IN GERMAN]
TRANSLATOR: This is our breeding room. The baby ostriches breed in these heated incubators. We have 600 ostrich eggs in here and they need about 40 days to hatch.
MUHLBERGER: Bellbecher learned all about ostriches six years ago. She started breeding them to build up her income, most of which comes from fruit farming. Her apple and pear orchards overlook the Rhine Valley, south of Bonn, and now her land is also home to 280 ostriches, the biggest ostrich farm in Germany. It's regularly open for tourists: her wide-eyed birds fascinate hundreds of visitors of all ages.
MUHLBERGER: But if her young audience today were told why the incubators are so full these days, they'd probably burst into tears. Ostrich meat has become increasingly popular in Germany. Recent outbreaks of Mad Cow and foot and mouth disease sent many people looking for alternatives to beef and pork.
BELLBECHER: [IN GERMAN]
TRANSLATOR: We sell to people who are looking for healthy meat. Ostrich meat is extremely lean and it has no cholesterol. We don't use antibiotics and we don't try to fatten the animals. We give them time to grow naturally. That's what our customers value.
MUHLBERGER: The demand for her ostriches has increased so much this year that Bellbecher started a waiting list, and she intends to double the number of birds on her farm. But ostriches need a lot of space, and that's hard to come by in the densely populated Rhineland. Bellbecher's farm is already at capacity, according to the German Association of Ostrich Farmers. They advise members to keep fewer birds rather than overcrowd their farms. The group concedes that ostrich meat, though growing in popularity, is likely to remain a niche market here. Traditional beef sausages and Wiener Schnitzel are far too popular for Germans to make ostrich a staple of their diet.
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MUHLBERGER: In most restaurants and company cafeterias, like this one in Cologne, serving exotic meat has already proved a short-lived experience. Six months after the BSE crisis peaked in Germany, beef is back on the menu. Today, for example, diners can choose from spaghetti with beef bolognese, pork schnitzel, or chicken breast, with fries.
FEMALE PATRON: Yes, of course they've offered much more fish and some really exotic kinds of meat, like ostrich and kangaroo--I think kangaroo, and horse meat, yes. And for a while there was no beef at all. Now it's come back, as far as I noticed.
MUHLBERGER: And, as other diners note, while many people stopped eating beef at the height of the BSE scandal, only few have changed their eating habits for longer.
FEMALE PATRON: I started eating more chicken and fish and I didn't touch any meat, like beef and sausages and all these things. But then, after a while, you know, you're getting more relaxed, and now I've started eating meat again.
MALE PATRON: Well, I have changed my eating habits, in the beginning, and then thought it was stupid because now they're testing.
MUHLBERGER: Meat sales plummeted by 70 percent last December. They've since risen to a level 25 percent below last year's figures. That's mainly thanks to the government's new rigorous testing scheme. Professor Zwingmann of the Ministry of Agriculture, also heads the National Crisis Center for the fight against BSE.
ZWINGMANN: [IN GERMAN]
TRANSLATOR: It's because we've implemented a new EU-wide test, whereby all beef cattle older than 24 months are tested for BSE automatically. Germany has tested more than a million animals already and, so far, only 20 were diagnosed positive. So the infection rate here is comparatively small. The new tests allow us to say with a high degree of certainty that the beef sold today is safe.
MUHLBERGER: But there is still a lot of work to be done to rebuild trust in the agriculture and food industry. Transparency is the new buzzword. Farmers and butchers are trying hard to convince consumers that they have nothing to hide. Farm tours, and Web-cams in butcher shops have become effective ways of rebuilding trust. Christoph Silber-Bons from the German Butcher's Association represents small local butchers.
SILBER-BONS: Most butchers know the farmer personally where they get the animals from. If the consumer wants to take him in his car and drive him to his farm and shows him directly the cows or whatever he gets his beef from, and he can show him how he does his sausages, he can look into the sausage kitchen, he can explain what is in it.
MUHLBERGER: With all this professionalism and pride in the meat industry, it's hard to imagine how things could have gone so terribly wrong. Historically, the European Union paid subsidies to farmers by the animal, fueling the growth of factory farms, which aimed to churn out as many cows as they could. Many industrial breeders fed cows on cheap feed, made from ground-up cow meat and bones.
Scientists in Britain linked the outbreak of Mad Cow disease there to the use of cattle feed containing meat and bone meal. Germany banned the use of meat-based cattle feeds in 1994, but the practice continued. A new ban on such feeds, for all animals, was issued in January of this year. Again, Christoph Silber-Bons.
SILBER-BONS: It started with what cows got to eat was the wrong thing, and how they were brought up, how they were transported. Beef is not a product which you can ship all around Europe or the world. It is a product that everything should be close together--the farm, the butcher and the consumer. So this all played together to come to the situation like it is now, and we hope that now there is a rethinking what really quality beef means, and again, that it needs to have its price to really make sure that it has quality.
MUHLBERGER: The Ministry of Agriculture, which is now responsible for consumer protection, has given this rethinking process a name. It's called Agrarwende, or turnaround-in- agriculture. But this turnaround is not limited to cattle raising. The BSE scare triggered a critical examination of agriculture in general. Instead of being pushed to grow as much as possible, farmers are now hearing quality, not quantity. The new model in Germany is the smaller, organic farm, where animals graze freely and the food chain is strictly controlled. Professor Zwingmann of the Ministry explains.
ZWINGMANN: [IN GERMAN]
TRANSLATOR: I think there is a lot to be improved in conventional farming, and it is the declared goal of the government to increase the number of organic farms in Germany. We are trying to be the driving force in Europe, and the restructuring of agriculture can only work if it happens EU-wide.
[AMBIENT SOUND: OUTDOOR FOOD MARKET]
MUHLBERGER: Vendors at the weekly outdoor food market in Cologne say the number of customers has doubled. Even the large supermarket chains are starting to expand their organic food sections. The German government is hopeful that, unlike exotic meats, which have shown to be a niche market, organic produce will go mainstream.
A special budget, of over $5 billion, has been granted to kick-start the farming reform. But, as the newly appointed Green Party Minister for Consumer Protection and Agriculture, Renate Kunast, pointed out recently, the real power to support healthier and more natural farming methods lies in the hands of consumers. To that end, she's calling on them to keep voting--with their shopping baskets. For Living on Earth, I'm Michael Muhlberger, in Cologne, Germany.
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