Of the four people to have contracted the human form of mad cow disease in France so far, two have died. Both were regular customers of steakhouse chain Buffalo Grill. Allegations that the chain served British beef while it was banned in France have made headlines around Europe. The case once again highlights public concern and skepticism over food safety.

French restaurant chain Buffalo Grill has been accused of failing in its duty of care to customers, deceiving consumers on the nature and provenance of its ingredients and forging stamps of origin on cuts of meat. The claims have been made by lawyers acting for the families of two victims of Creuzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD), the human form of mad cow disease.

Since Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) – or mad cow disease – appeared in British cattle in the 1980s around 100 people have died from vCJD, mostly in Britain. Europe halted imports of British beef in 1996 amid fears of infection, and France controversially continued its ban until last October. Buffalo Grill is under investigation for allegedly serving British beef during the embargo.

Trading in the company’s stock was frozen in December. When it resumed in January, an avalanche of sells orders sent it plummeting by half its value in matter of hours.

Four of the company’s senior executives face charges of manslaughter. The prosecution states that the two victims contracted variant CJD after eating contaminated British beef that had been fraudulently imported.

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Staff from Districoupe, Buffalo Grill’s butchery subsidiary, originally claimed that they had seen joints of meat showing UK stamps of origin or no stamps at all, thus making it impossible to ascertain the product’s origin.

The public prosecutor’s office is in favor of dropping the charges of involuntary homicide against the senior executives as there is little evidence to suggest that they are directly responsible for the two deaths. However, the charges of endangering the lives of others, misleading customers and forgery remain.

Political and consumer reactions to food scares such as the BSE scare are frequently out of proportion to the actual safety risk. However, companies that are unable to convince a concerned public of their commitment to food safety expose themselves to the type of consequences now facing Buffalo Grill.

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