French executives grilled over BSE claims

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Fast food, Beef

Four senior officials from French fast food chain Buffalo Grill,
including chief executive Christian Picart, have been accused of
manslaughter and fraud amid allegations that the company illegally
imported British beef infected with BSE.

The owners of French fast food restaurant chain Buffalo Grill have been formally accused of fraud and manslaughter after it was alleged that they broke the embargo and imported British beef at the height of the BSE scandal, in turn leading to a number of deaths from vCJD.

The arrests are part of a wider investigation into the causes of four deaths from vCJD in France, and concern not only Buffalo Grill but also one of its subsidiaries, Districoupe, which supplies meat to the chain.

Francis Coutre and Nicolas Viguié, respectively president and administrative director of Districoupe, along with Buffalo Grill's chief executive Christian Picart and its purchasing director, have all been accused of illegally importing beef from the UK during the embargo, which began in 1996.

The judge in charge of the case, Marie-Odile Bertella-Geffroy, is thought to have discovered that two of the vCJD victims were regular customers of Buffalo Grill, although there is no direct proof that eating meat sold in the restaurants was the cause of the vCJD.

She is also thought to have discovered documents showing that Districoupe continued to import British beef after the embargo, although the company denies that this is the case.

Francois Picart, president of Buffalo Grill, said in a statement that 257 restaurants and 6,000 employees were threatened by the accusations, and stressed that "Buffalo Grill scrupulously respects all hygiene, traceability and sanitary controls"​ and that "every piece of beef which is and will be eaten in our restaurants is guaranteed to be of the highest quality"​.

He added, however, that if it was proven that certain individuals within the company had acted illegally and without the knowledge of the management, then they would be severely sanctioned (although if the case were proven, it is hard to imagine what sanctions the company could impose which would be more severe than those of the court).

"It is not in the interests of the company which I run, serving as it does some 27 million meals each year, to act in such a fraudulent manner,"​ Picart said. "Such action would severely damage our reputation and the health of our customers. I therefore personally guarantee the safety of all the food served in Buffalo Grill restaurants."

The company has said that it imported most of its beef from South America during the embargo, which was only lifted in October this year, two years after the rest of the EU declared British beef was safe once again. Even the families of the French victims of vCJD are unconvinced of Bufallo Grill's culpability, arguing that because of the long incubation period of the disease, the contaminated meat was almost certainly consumed before 1996, when it was perfectly legal for any French restaurant or store to sell British beef - and that the real culprits are British, French and European officials who failed to act quickly enough to prevent the spread of the contaminated meat in the early 1990s.

It will certainly prove extremely difficult to show that Buffalo Grill was responsible for the deaths, even if it can be proven that the chain acted illegally in importing the meat. But the damage to the chain's reputation has already been done, with its share price collapsing over the last few days and public confidence in the chain unlikely to be restored by Picart's personal guarantee.

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