PARIS — French consumers may have stopped buying beef over mad cow hysteria, but they have not buried their heads in the sand, they're turning to ostrich meat.
With shoppers spurning beef amid fears of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) and its deadly human equivalent, ostrich breeders are watching their sales take off.
"In the past three weeks, mad cow crisis has multiplied my sales by about five," said Jean-Pierre Sumien, owner of an ostrich farm about 90 miles northeast of Paris.
Sumien's sales of ostrich meat have soared from about 1,000 francs ($128) a week to 5,000 francs ($640) since supermarkets revealed last month that they might have sold beef potentially tainted with mad cow disease.
"I'm going to have to buy some more birds to keep up with demand," said Sumien, who currently has 140 ostriches on his farm. "I already have orders for the Christmas holidays."
The succulent red meat costs about 180 francs per kilo — about as much as a good cut of beef before the mad cow panic.
Sumien appears to be luckier than most ostrich farmers.
The French Association of Ostrich Breeders said that overall sales in France have climbed by only about 30 percent.
"There's definitely a link to mad cow because the crisis is making consumers realize that there are alternatives on the market," said Sylvette Robert, spokeswoman for the breeders' association.
Robert said her group gets dozens of calls a day from consumers asking what ostriches eat and whether they are free of BSE. Farm-bred ostriches are fed cereal grain.
France consumes about 250 tons of ostrich meat each year, either imported from Australia or Israel or bred on the 60 ostrich farms in France.