The German beef industry has a new enemy: the emu.
Frightened by mad cow disease, many Germans have stopped eating beef and in their quest for safe food are developing a taste for the large Australian flightless bird.
Chicken and pork have remained dietary staples in this country of meat lovers, but they don't do the trick when the taste buds scream out for a thick, juicy burger - without the beef.
Germans are also turning other exotic imports such as kangaroo, crocodile and ostrich.
"Emu is like beef," said Janet Baracche, owner of the Frankfurt-based speciality restaurant Kangaroo's, which specialises in exotic meats and meals. "It really tastes like beef but doesn't have all of the disadvantages," she said.
That means low-cholesterol, low-fat, and no apparent risk of getting the brain-wasting sickness that has caused near hysteria in Germany since the first cases of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) were discovered in cattle last November.
"It's all a question of how it's prepared," said Kangaroo's customer, Axel Schmidt, a 32-year-old law student. He said his emu burger was a bit dry.
A LITTLE TOUGH
Emu meat is dark, a tad chewy, and less bloody than beef. At Kangaroo's it comes as a burger on a bun, shish kebab on a skewer or as a steak with mango sauce and wild rice.
Driven by the BSE fears, demand for the emu is surging, Baracche said. "Sales of emu meat have climbed two-thirds since the middle of last year."
Other delicacies on her menu include grilled kangaroo steak in cranberry sauce and a skewer of emu, kangaroo and crocodile roasted on a spit.
For fish lovers, an exotic Barramundi fillet with prawns is available. Baracche also offers crocodile whose white meat tastes like a cross between chicken and fish.
MAD ABOUT OSTRICH
The change in German eating habits is forcing meat wholesalers to respond to higher demand for emu as well as the similar-tasting ostrich.
"Ostrich meat is going like crazy," says Sven Kamlade, a worker at the Hamburg-based wholesaler Rari. "In January we've sold 30 to 40 tonnes of ostrich already. That's unusual for us. Normally, let's say, if we sell a tonne in a month then that's okay," Kamlade says.
Beef sales, on the other hand, are down 60 percent nationwide. Prices have collapsed by almost 30 percent following the discovery of more than a dozen cases of BSE in German cattle since November.
Two of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's ministers have resigned over the debacle and consumers, reminded of the government's claims that the country would remain immune to BSE because of supposedly high standards, are rattled.
Renate Kuenast, the country's new Consumer Protection and Farm Minister, told parliament she expects up to 500 confirmed cases of mad cow disease to be documented by the end of 2001.
"We used to slaughter five cows per week. Now we slaughter just one," laments Frankfurt butcher Horst Hoos. "Ostrich is something that is frequently asked for and crocodile, too, this week," he added.
Ostrich is popular because it is cholesterol-free and affordable, Rari's Kamlade says. Kangaroo sales have also jumped. "The interest is there, but I don't think it will go as high as ostrich," he says.
The meat comes from all over the world, including New Zealand, South Africa and South America. At Kangaroo's, those who choose a beef burger over emu get Argentine meat.
VEGETARIANS POSE A PROBLEM
Kamlade said that despite the BSE crisis, sales at Rari were up 20 percent in 2000. With fish, lamb, emu and crocodile adding to the rush on ostrich, the company's business is doing well.
Their biggest risk: vegetarians.
"The one thing that could affect us is if people go in large numbers or large percentages in the direction of vegetarianism," Kamlade says.
At Kangaroo's, meat eating is not a prerequisite for fine dining. "We always have a minimum of three vegetarian options on our menu of the week," said Baracche who gave up beef five years ago.
"I seldom eat meat," she said. "But when I eat some, then probably kangaroo, emu or lamb. It's good that people are thinking about what they eat."