Beef trade partner response to BSE tempered…so far

By Sara Wyant

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

WASHINGTON, May 2, 2012 -Major U.S. beef trading partners refrained from slapping restrictions on American shipments in the week since the discovery of BSE in an 11-year-old dairy cow in central California, but a leading industry official cautions that maintaining market access is only part of the battle.

 “The response from the international markets has been very encouraging,” Phil Seng, president and CEO of the U.S. Meat Export Federation, told Agri-Pulse. The biggest foreign buyers of U.S. beef - Canada, Mexico, Japan and South Korea - have taken no action thus far to restrict market access.

 Together we can feed the Bees

That could change on May 9 when a South Korean food safety team completes its review of U.S. BSE safeguards. The delegation arrived in Washington on Tuesday, a day after a General Assembly committee voted unanimously to halt American beef shipments. The nine-member Korean team hopes to dig into more details. "On top of the (USDA) and other facilities such as rendering firms, we are still negotiating to take a closer look at the California farm,'' a South Korean official said. While non-binding, the legislative committee vote nevertheless underscored the government's sensitivity about the issue leading up to the fourth anniversary today of protests on the streets of Seoul against U.S. beef.

The Korean Ministry for Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MIFAFF) increased the percentage of U.S beef subjected to screening from 3 percent to 10 percent, ratcheting up to 50 percent. “We demanded that quarantine authorities inspect 100 percent of U.S. beef but were told that is impossible due to shortage of staff, so we set it at 50 percent instead,” a high-ranking government official said. Civic groups planned a massive candlelight rally in central Seoul May 2 to protest the government's decision.

Seng said he was especially encouraged by the “leadership role” taken by Japan, which has dealt with 36 confirmed cases of BSE in its domestic herd and is considered a leader in scientific understanding of the brain-wasting disease.

Tokyo's decision to keep its market open was helpful in persuading other nations to do the same, he said, and likely aided by assurances from USDA that the dairy cow contracted a rare form of BSE and did not enter the food or feed chain.

It also suggests there will be no delay in the Japanese regulatory process to raise cattle-age limits on beef imports from the United States from 20 months to 30 months, the USMEF official added.

A partial import ban by Indonesia on variety meat bone-in cuts remains the only official change in market access for U.S. beef. Seng linked the prohibition to Indonesia's desire to bolster its own beef production, not actual concerns about BSE.

“We've had an increasingly difficult time with Indonesia, anyway,” he remarked. The Southeast Asian nation imported nearly 18,000 metric tons of U.S. beef valued at more than $28.2 million in 2011.

As Washington works to maintain market access, USMEF is working to keep American beef on store shelves abroad.

“We had this mad rush to [educate] retailers [and] food service and, for the most part, we've been very successful in that regard,” according to Seng.

Two supermarkets in South Korea pulled U.S. beef off their shelves within 24 hours of USDA's announcement of the first BSE case in six years. One of the stores has since put it back on the shelf. At the request of local retailers, USMEF has suspended all in-store promotion of U.S. beef in Korea. “There's still a lot of work that has to be done to reassure consumers” there and elsewhere in Asia, Seng said.


Original story printed in May 2nd, 2012 Agri-Pulse Newsletter.

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