CONSUMERS in France are ready to accept British beef on their plates again, but the key to re-establishing the export market lies in convincing butchers and retailers.

Recent research by MLC France showed 80pc of consumers interviewed said they would buy English lamb; eight years ago, the figure was the reverse, with 80pc refusing to touch it. Comments at the Eblex stand at SIA seemed to bear out the current survey results.

"Beef, however, is a more difficult story," said Remi Fourrier, British meat director with MLC France. "The French have such terrible images of British cattle - the staggering cow images televised during BSE for instance.

"However, last year, half of a group of consumers said that the British had made mistakes but had been very honest and transparent and they accepted that British beef might now be among the safest."

Two years ago, samples of cooked British beef were offered to visitors to SIA, with French television cameras poised to capture the negative comments. "But they couldn't find one person to criticise British beef, everyone was eating it and enjoying it and no-one had anything against it," said M Fourrier.

A survey of French butchers had a very different outcome. "They had so many misconceptions about British beef. BSE threatened their jobs and they passed the wrong messages for years. These are the people that we need to convince that things have changed in the UK and that is a huge job. There is also very strong pressure from the French farmers."

The French spend a much higher proportion of their income on food than the British.

"French people value quality food and they know how to cook it," said M Fourrier. "In France, quality food is the only thing people talk about. If you travel on a train in the morning, the conversation will be about yesterday's meal.

"Good food is the most important thing to the French and it has a strong cultural connection."

However, even this is declining as the nation follows the UK trend towards ready meals and a "quick fix" in the kitchen.

Producers of dairy culled cow beef see their products selling for as much as 22 euros (about £15) per kilo when marketed to the young, single city dweller who shops at the supermarket and has little time to cook.

Vacuum packed single steaks, packaged so that the customer does not see the meat but relies on a picture on the wrapper, walk off the shelves at Carrefour, one of France's largest supermarkets.

In-store preparation of meat, in full view of shoppers, is still common in French supermarkets but has almost disappeared from UK stores.

Discount butcher chains are also developing across France, using only imported beef, mainly from Ireland and Germany. M Fourrier anticipates that this might be one channel through which British producers will get back into the export market.