- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 21, 2001

Washington area diners will shell out more money for tender babyback ribs if last week's ban on European animal products persists, restaurant and store officials said yesterday.

The ban, imposed in response to an outbreak of the highly contagious foot-and-mouth disease, cuts Americans off from Danish suppliers of the petite ribs, affecting such well-known restaurants as Chili's, Outback Steakhouse and T.G.I. Friday's.

The interruption of supplies hands American pork producers a chance to grab market share from their Danish competitors but ultimately could hit consumers directly in the pocketbook.

"Prices will probably go up if we have to buy exclusively domestically," said Robert Easby-Smith, director of operations for the 19 Chili's restaurants in the Washington area.

The chain, which has more than 600 outlets nationwide, has enough Danish ribs on hand for the next three to four weeks, he said.

The uncertainty over supplies of the barbecued delight is an aftershock of a decision by the Department of Agriculture on March 13 to prohibit imports of animals and animal products from the 15-nation European Union. That day, French officials announced that a foot-and-mouth outbreak, once contained to Britain, had spread to the continent. The ban will last until at least the end of the month, officials said.

The viral infection, which produces lesions around animals' feet and mouth, cannot harm humans but spreads rapidly among cloven-hoofed beasts. It has forced the destruction of hundreds of thousands of sheep, pigs and cows in Europe.

The United States does not import beef from Europe because of fears of "mad-cow" disease, so the ban falls primarily on the $191 million in pork imports from Denmark, principally ribs.

T.G.I. Friday's, a Dallas-based chain, is scrambling to secure new supplies of ribs so it can continue serving its two dishes that include the Danish meat, said spokeswoman Amy Freshwater.

The company, which operates 29 restaurants in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia, has an eight-week supply of babyback ribs, and is keeping prices stable for now.

"At this time, we don't see any price changes," she said.

Retail outlets that sell pork products are fielding questions and informing concerned customers about the ban in an effort to stop bad news from damaging sales of unaffected products.

"We've had questions in the stores, but I haven't seen any negative impact on sales," said Jeff Turnas, a buyer for Whole Foods Market, which operates the Fresh Fields chain in the mid-Atlantic region.

The potential interruption of supplies marks a major stumble for Chili's ribs, which entered the public consciousness in part through a television commercial, now discontinued, in which a restaurant cook spontaneously intones: "I want my babyback ribs." Comedian Mike Myers subsequently parodied the jingle in his wildly popular movie "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me."

Though babyback ribs, which are served dripping with sauce, have become part of American barbecue cuisine, Danish producers have grabbed the lion's share of the market because most restaurants find their ribs more tender than those from much larger American hogs, Mr. Easby-Smith said.

If Chili's and other restaurants begin using American ribs, they will have to use longer cooking times to approximate the tenderness of the Danish product. If they can't get the taste right, the ban could spell the end of a winning dish, Mr. Easby-Smith said.

"The last resort," he added, "would be to take ribs off the menu."

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