US fears over beef supply

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: United states, Beef

A Californian consumer group in the US has called for beef sold in
the state to carry country-of-origin labels, and claims that
supermarket giant Safeway has been selling unlabelled beef from
Canada, where a feeding practice linked to mad cow disease has not
been banned. This suggests growing concern in the States over the
safety of the food supply chain.

Indeed, a California legislative committee introduced a bill yesterday sponsored by the Consumer Federation of California that would extend labelling laws for beef to California. If the legislation becomes law, California would join three other states in requiring country of origin labels for beef.

The deadly disease had been found in Canada last May, prompting the United States to close its border to Canadian beef and live cattle. In response to mad cow disease, the United States and the European Union prohibited the use of cow products in cattle feed. This also includes an upcoming US ban on the feeding of cow blood to calves.

However, Canada has not banned the feeding of cow blood to calves, even though some scientists believe this practice is a potential method for spreading mad cow disease. Safeway claims that it only purchases a small quantity of beef products from Canada, and that all of it meets strict federal requirements for food safety.

This coordinated action from the Consumer Federation of California and the state legislative committee suggests that the safety of the food supply chain is becoming a more important issue in the US. Consumers in the states have traditionally been less cautious about food scares than their European counterparts.

For example, despite the widely-reported outbreak of BSE, the popularity of meat has not dipped in the States.

"I think we should give people more credit - people clearly have confidence in the food system,"​ said Jim Long, meat analyst and CEO of genetics company Genesus. "It is certainly not the case that people are fearful of meat."

The situation is different in Europe. Whereas Americans have appeared to be happy to accept government reassurances of food safety, consumers in Europe have been far more sceptical. Health scares have hit meat consumption harder, according to the Central Statistics Office​.

For example, pig slaughterings decreased by 4.1 per cent or 10,000 tonnes last year compared to the previous year, while poultry meat imports decreased by 5.1 per cent to 37,000 tonnes.

But the recent action in California is perhaps an example of the narrowing of the gap between European and US consumers on the issue of food safety. This is also beginning to happen the field of GM crops. Bernard Marintelli from the Agricultural Biotechnology Council (ABC), believes that this is happening for two reasons.

"If you look at surveys in the US, there has been a small increase in the number of people that have concerns over GMOs, primarily due to the negative coverage of the issue from Europe. This means that from virtually no opposition, there now exists low opposition to GM foods."

He contrasts this with what is happening in Europe.

"In 1997 to 1998, GM was not a public issue - hardly anyone had heard of it,"​ he says. "We then went through the eye of the storm in 1999 to 2000 where there was a large amount of opposition. But if you look at recent surveys, there is now a small core in favour, a small core opposed and a large chunk in the middle driven by issues of taste and price rather than safety."

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