U.K. STORES COPING WITH FOOT-AND-MOUTH CRISIS

LONDON (FNS) -- British food retailers last week said their meat inventories were returning to normal despite a continued escalation of foot-and-mouth disease among the nation's livestock herds.Food retailers moved rapidly last month to make alternative arrangements for beef, pork and lamb following the outbreak of the crisis. Many are now sourcing beef from Ireland, pork from Denmark and Holland,

LONDON (FNS) -- British food retailers last week said their meat inventories were returning to normal despite a continued escalation of foot-and-mouth disease among the nation's livestock herds.

Food retailers moved rapidly last month to make alternative arrangements for beef, pork and lamb following the outbreak of the crisis. Many are now sourcing beef from Ireland, pork from Denmark and Holland, and lamb from New Zealand.

The outbreak resulted in stockpiling of meat by consumers, with demand jumping 30% to 40% above the average. However, food retail executives last week said demand was beginning to return to normal levels.

"We're now getting some British meat into the licensing scheme instituted by the government, which helps," said a spokesman for Tesco, Cheshunt, England. "It also helps that, frankly, people's freezers are full. They can't fit any more meat into them so demand is beginning to stabilize."

Retailers expressed confidence they will be able to cope with the crisis no matter how long it lasts. Jim Scudamore, the U.K.'s chief veterinary officer, last week warned the outbreak of the disease would last "a long time." So far, more than 100 cases of the disease have been confirmed throughout the U.K., and more than 90,000 animals have been selected for slaughter because they either have the disease or have come in contact with it.

The British government has placed severe restrictions on the shipment of live animals throughout the U.K. and warned consumers not to venture into the countryside. Such countries as Portugal have instituted disinfectant programs for British tourists to ensure they don't bring the disease into the country on their clothing.

But food retailers said consumers generally were acting responsibly. They also said there has been no downturn in the consumption of beef, pork or lamb as a result of the crisis. "Consumers are heeding the government's statements that the disease is not dangerous to humans," a spokesman for J. Sainsbury here said. "This isn't a food crisis; it's a farming crisis."

British Prime Minister Tony Blair appears to believe otherwise, however. Blair angered food retailers by claiming they were partially responsible for the crisis because of the pressure they place on their suppliers. He also blamed supermarkets for the widespread closure of slaughterhouses, which some allege is the reason the disease has spread so rapidly.

"Supermarkets have a big role to play for that because they insist on having all their meat taken to one [slaughterhouse] to be slaughtered," Blair said in a speech at the agricultural institution Hartpury College.

Blair's attack came as food retailers are in talks with the U.K. Competition Commission about a voluntary code of conduct on their treatment of suppliers. The code follows the commission's antitrust investigation into the U.K.'s largest food retailers last year. The probe found that there was no oligopoly working within British food retailing, which remains intensely competitive.

Food retail executives last week declined to comment on Blair's attack. "We're shopkeepers, not politicians," the Tesco spokesman said. "We're just focusing on keeping our stores filled with meat."