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Germany

Boeuf à la Buffalo

After last year's "mad cow" madness, many Europeans are rejecting beef for healthier alternatives—and redefining their culinary traditions. How about a buffalo steak?

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Buffalo can be a tasty alternative to beef

Last year, panicky consumers in Europe abandoned beef in droves, turning to what they considered as safer alternatives: pork, poultry, lamb, fish and more fruits and vegetables. More exotic fare like ostrich, emu, bison and kangaroo soon appeared on restaurant menues and shoppers used to large-scale supermarkets could be seen selecting organically grown foods carefully from the shelves of health shops.

The panic was sparked by the recall of possibly tainted beef with bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE - believed to be the main vector of human infection with its brain-wasting human variant, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease - by three French supermarket chains.

Across the European Union, beef consumption dropped by a third and export markets collapsed. In Germany, Spain and Italy, sales plunged between 40% and 50%.

Meanwhile, beef consumption in most of the affected countries has almost returned to pre-BSE levels. But one thing is certain: "mad cow" disease has changed the way Europeans eat and consumers are far more aware of how food is produced, marketed and prepared.

A farmer with a difference

Organic farmers still belong to some of those who have profited from the eruption of the deadly disease.

Dieter Ullrich is an organic farmer with a difference. Not only does he farm using environmentally friendly methods. He can also meet consumers’ appetites for more exotic foods with his products. Ullrich is the owner of a herd of bubalus arnee, or Asian water buffalo.

The huge creatures, measuring 2.5 metres long and 1 metre 30 tall have settled in the water meadows surrounding the little north German town of Eutin. Dieter Ullrich, who is against intensive farming methods common in Europe, brought the little herd to Germany a couple of years ago.

Ullrich had originally planned a herd of Highland cattle. But he then saw yet another report on BSE and realised it was too risky.

But Dieter Ullrich refused to be deterred. Originally a carpenter, he wanted to change direction professionally and, after several months, found his vocation in livestock. He finally came upon the Asian water buffalo. According to Ullrich, "there have been no reported cases of BSE in buffalo anywhere in the world."

When considering his idea of founding Eutin’s first buffalo herd for agricultural use, the big question for the new farmer was whether the buffalo - used to wallowing in the waters of sunny India - would cope with chilly northern Germany.

But the shaggy beasts have proved to be robust creatures, perfect for extensive livestock farming. Ullrich bought his first three buffalo in 1996. Now his little herd numbers 8, with 4 in calf. According Ullrich, "they are really very adaptable.. they even eat reeds, nettles and thistles".

Although Ullrich does not intend to slaughter any of the animals yet - despite increased demand – he has made plans for the future. One day, his youngest male buffalo will end up in this cold room, which he built himself.

The neighbours have already put in their orders. "There's no way I can meet the demand," he says.

And that is the problem. There are simply not enough livestock to ensure a continuous supply. In the whole country, there are only 700 water buffalo, as rearing them is complicated and time-consuming.

More money for more healthy products

Last year, seeking to curb the epidemic and restore consumer confidence, the EU adopted a series of draconian measures, straining the EU’s budget heavily. This led to calls for a radical reform of the EU's $37 billion Common Agricultural Policy, shifting a share of its massive subsidies away from large-scale intensive farming toward more environmentally friendly producers.

However, whether exotic farmers such as Dieter Ullrich will feel the effects of the EU’s measures to support more environmentally friendly producers still remains to be seen. The farmer, with his unusual herd of animals is a novelty in animal farming.

Still a speciality

So what does the meat taste like? "It tastes a bit like game. But only a little. It's very tender and tastes great," Ulrich says.

Dieter Ullrich is pleased that word has got round about the meat's excellent flavour.

However, at present the meat is only available in specialist shops.

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