Organic opportunity

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Related tags: Bovine spongiform encephalopathy

Organic meat sales are set to surge in the United States as BSE
sparks consumers' fears for food safety, reports UK research
company Organic Monitor. Late last month the US government
confirmed the country's first mad cow case in a Holstein dairy cow
in Washington state, prompting wholesale bans on US beef imports in
many countries.

The latest report from Organic Monitor​ shows that sales of organic meat products in Canada expanded by 35 per cent in 2003 mainly because of the recent BSE scare there. Many Canadian retailers reported record sales of organic beef this year due to BSE elevating consumer demand.

Sales of organic beef in the US could double in 2004 if suppliers can get sufficient volume into the retail trade, claims the report.

"Many consumers see organic beef to be safer than non-organic beef since organically reared cattle are not fed animal remnants. There have also been no cases of BSE reported on animals that have been reared their entire lives according to organic production methods,"​ said the report.

Scientists hold the general consensus that the best way to prevent mad cow disease is to ban 'high risk' material - the brains, spinal cord and other remains of an infected cow - from human food and animal feed.

Since August 1997, the US Food and Drug Administration has banned the use of cattle remains as an ingredient in feed for other cows, goats and sheep.

In contrast to organic chicken, organic beef is typically produced on a small-scale, distributed via inefficient supply chains, and priced three times higher than conventional beef, reports Organic Monitor.

"Consumers also perceive organic beef to be very similar to natural beef, which is widely available in natural food shops. These are factors behind organic beef having a mere 0.02 per cent share of the US beef market in 2003,"​ adds the report.

The US Department of Agriculture last week banned brains and spinal cord from older cattle from the food supply. Some lawmakers and consumer groups are calling for even tougher steps, such as banning the feeding of animal remains to all food animals.

Results from DNA tests of the Holstein dairy cow expected back this week will determine whether the animal was originally from Canada. US officials believe the 6 1/2-year-old cow was imported into the US from Alberta, Canada, in 2001.

In response to the announcement in December, more than two dozen countries - among them Japan, one of the top buyers of US beef - have banned US beef exports, worth an annual €3 billion.

Meanwhile, in the US, the government has announced that it may pay cattle owners in order to continue testing sick and injured animals for mad cow disease. According to a report in the Financial Times​, more than three-quarters of the 20,000 animals tested annually for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) are 'downers' - sick or disabled cattle. Because downer cattle are unlikely to be taken to slaughter plants with healthy animals, more testing will have to be done at rendering plants and on farms.

Ron DeHaven, chief veterinarian for the Department of Agriculture (USDA), said the agency was considering a variety of options, including a payment to cattle owners to ensure that sick animals no longer brought to slaughter would still be tested for BSE.

"Now that non-ambulatory animals can no longer be used in food, our efforts are focused on modifying our surveillance system so that we still have access to these animals,"​ Dr DeHaven told a news conference.

Industry bodies such as the US Meat Export Federation (USMEF) are working flat out to convince the world that American beef is safe. "We are working aggressively with our overseas offices, and we have offices in 16 countries around the world and also consultants in many other offices, and what we're working on is to try to resurrect the trade,"​ said USMEF president Phil Seng. "Since the announcement on the 23rd of BSE, we've had over 35 countries close their doors to us and that has affected us greatly because it constitutes close to about 95 per cent of all of our total beef exports."

In a Dow Jones​ report, Seng is quoted as saying that the effect of shutting off beef exports has been dramatic for US beef producers. He pointed to a 20 per cent drop in cattle prices within a matter of 10 days as proof of the damage done to US cattle producers.

Seng said that one of the most pressing concerns now is getting US beef sent to foreign markets before the BSE case erupted accepted, rather than returned to the States. "We estimate there's close now to about 2,200 containers of product either in customs storage or on the water,"​ he said. "All of this product has been under the Beef Export Verification programme, and we maintain that this product is totally safe because of all the safeguards and firewalls that are involved. So, we want to get this product released and we want to get that released this week."

Related topics: Markets, Europe

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