LONDON/PARIS—These are tough times to be a beef-eater, and I'm not talking about the royal guards in the Tower of London.
First there was mad cow disease, which hit Great Britain hard and has now spread to Europe, where updates on la vache folle (French) and mucca pazzo (Italian), which can cause a fatal brain disease in humans, can be heard almost daily.
To combat, or, rather, contain foot-and-mouth, countless sheep and cattle are being destroyed, and even presumed healthy animals cannot be shipped in or out of affected areas. Horse races and soccer matches in affected areas have been canceled, lest visiting fans carry foot-and-mouth home as an unintended souvenir. Dublin canceled its St. Patrick's Day Festival. In spite of the precautions, the first case of foot-and-mouth was reported in France last week; in response, the United States banned fresh meat imports from the whole of the European Union.
And those planning European vacations this year must ponder: Do I dare eat the meat? Will I find any when I get there?
The answer to the second question is, yes. Though hundreds of animals are being slaughtered, no one is yet suggesting that food availability will be a problem.
The answer to the first question is a conditional yes. In the better restaurants, yes, the meat is probably safe. Whether "probably safe" is good enough (it's not as though European beef is better than what you'll find back home) is something you'll have to decide.
Certainly there is no shortage of beef on restaurant menus in London and Paris on my visit in late February. Along the Champs-Elysees, bistros and brasseries still list entrecote of beef and osso buco (veal shank) as the day's specials. The chalkboard in front of Le Madrigal hawks the steak frites, saucisses, grilled steak and spaghetti Bolognese (a sauce containing ground meat).
At McDonald's and Quick, two burger chains operating on the Champs-Elysees, mid-afternoon business is brisk. People are buying and digging into "Le 280," McDonald's oversized, 280-gram (nearly 10 ounces) burger. (But McDonald's has reported slumping European sales figures for the last two months and blames much of that on mad cow fear.) Prominent signs at both restaurants attest to the quality of their beef, claiming that it's 100 percent muscle (meat containing nerve fibers is considered a much higher risk) and that the meat's origin is monitored strictly.
So one solution could be to ask about the origin of the beef served. And hope for an honest answer.
"(Mad cow) hasn't been a problem here," says a waitress at Mosimann's, a private club in London. "We serve Angus beef (a high-quality product from Scotland that's so far untainted by mad cow and foot-and-mouth fears). I know some restaurants say they have Angus beef, but you really don't know. But we definitely have it."
The simplest solution, of course, is to avoid beef while in Europe. You wouldn't be alone.
"I never sold so much white wine in winter," says our waiter at Bon, a stylish restaurant in Paris. "People have red wine with meat, but this winter, no one orders meat, everyone orders fish. It's bizarre."
"I'm not avoiding meat completely," says one tourist from Germany, where the mad cow scare is just as, um, scary. "But I'm not eating sweetbreads (organ meats are considered higher risks). I'll eat steak, but if it's a steak with a bone in it, then no."
At the famed food courts in Harrods and Harvey Nichols, two prestigious London department stores, all is a flurry of commerce -- except for the butcher stations, which are almost deserted. (To be fair, most other counters feature ready-to-eat and prepackaged good, like cheeses and chocolates and prepared dishes.) But the fish counter at Harvey Nichols is quite busy, and the counterman concedes that, yes, mad cow fear has something to do with it. "I just hope it continues," he says, with a conspiratorial grin.
And maybe I picked all the wrong times, but in the various locations of Angus Steakhouse, a widespread mid-priced steak chain, you could have fired a cannon in the dining rooms without fear of hitting anyone. (In the chain's Earl's Court location, the first three letters of the illuminated sign had burned out, leaving only US STEAKHOUSE -- as though someone were trying to inspire confidence in the beef.)
Happily, avoiding beef in European restaurants is ludicrously easy. And there are plenty of high-quality restaurants in which beef isn't prominent on the menu -- or isn't there at all.