THE row of calf heads was a sure sign that this was not Smithfield but the offal hall of Rungis, the world's largest wholesale market, on the outskirts of Paris.

The French consume almost every scrap of every animal slaughtered and the meat area of Rungis supplies restaurants, supermarkets and butcher's shops across Europe, with a separate area dedicated to meat products such as ready meals.

France has more than ten times the number of restaurants in the UK and, while an increasing number now rely on distribution companies, a fair proportion still buy at Rungis, arriving at 3am to ensure they secure the best produce.

The market, which employs 15,000 people and includes fruit, vegetable, fish and poultry wholesale halls, is like Smithfield, Billingsgate and Covent Garden rolled into one and has been massively renovated.

Remi Fourrier, director of British meat for the MLC in France, said some smaller companies had pulled out as large distribution networks grew, but those that remained had invested heavily in Rungis, some installing their own cutting plants.

Most sales take place between 4am and 8am, after which the more down-market restaurants and retailers will buy. "Every day, everything is sold, nothing is left in the chiller," said M Fourrier. "There is always a market for every product and the Muslim butchers will often come along later in the morning to buy the poorer quality meat which remains. The traditional French butcher is disappearing and, when a butcher's shop closes, it is usually replaced by a Muslim butcher." Halal meat is readily available in France and is sold pre-packed in many supermarkets.

The French also use as much of the animal as possible for human consumption, including skirt, tripe, feet, heads and, in the poultry hall, chicken heart and gizzard, which would go into pet food in the UK.

"The offal business was destroyed by BSE and this had a huge impact on the livelihood of people here," said M Fourrier. "For instance, calves' heads, which are very much a delicacy in France, disappeared from the market following BSE.

"Since BSE, there has been massive investment in the offal hall at Rungis, which was formerly very dirty."

Visitors from North Yorkshire spotted apparent discrepancies between EC rules as obeyed in the UK and re-interpreted in France.

Workers from the Rungis cutting halls queued for coffee and breakfast at the market's snack bar in bloodied work aprons and boots. "That wouldn't be allowed in the UK," said Simon Dickenson, of Machin's Yorkshire Lamb, based near Thirsk. "There are definitely differences in the rules as applied in Britain and in the rest of Europe. The British Government seems to enforce the law to the letter, even strengthening it for the UK, while the French ignore much of it."

Most beef eaten in France is culled dairy cow and meat is generally not hung but slaughtered, cut, sold and cooked immediately.

Gilles Steiner, head of production at Ovimpex, France's biggest importer of British meat, which has a cutting plant at Rungis, has got most of his beef from Germany, Austria and Belgium since BSE.

Before the scare in the mid-1990s, he dealt with ten lorry-loads of British beef a week. A 50pc post-BSE slump in beef consumption in Germany resulted in increased availability of carcases from that country, which more than plugged the gap.

The complications of the sheep trade which followed the BSE crisis led to vast imports of frozen and chilled New Zealand lamb.