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U.S. Beef, Food Safety And Freedom

It is good news for America’s beef producers that the market in Japan is now open. However, there are plenty of indications of skepticism in Japan about the safety of U.S. beef and thus real doubts about how quickly demand in Japan will ramp up to pre-embargo level. Japan was the largest importer of U.S. beef, buying almost $1.5 billion in 2003.

The relationship between the U.S. and Japan is so deep that many Japanese wonder if their government wouldn’t open the market for political reasons, to help an ally. And the issue is problematic. On the one hand, from any reasonable cost/benefit ratio the Japanese standard of inspecting every cow is not justified. But the threat, in its nature, is different from the kind of statistical dangers that advocates of restriction on pesticides or other such things point to. Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) and its human form, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, have been linked to more than 150 deaths, mostly in Britain.

It is important for the food industry to make sure that trade policy decisions are made on a scientific basis. So a country, under WTO rules, can’t ban a product because they declare a “hunch” about it. But if a country is willing to enforce an inspection regime against its own producers, and Japan does require that 100% of all domestic cattle be tested for BSE, do we really want to say they can’t apply that rule to imports?

Beyond trade policy there is another issue at stake: The United States Department of Agriculture is prohibiting companies from doing their own tests. So no U.S. producer can market its product as 100% tested, whether to sell in the U.S. or overseas. The USDA is contending that such testing is not needed. This is probably true. The odds of an individual getting sick seem to be infinitesimal.

Still, it is a free country and if a consumer wants to buy peace of mind by paying extra for a brand of beef that is 100% tested, it is not clear why it is any business of the government to stand in his way.

The USDA seems concerned that the very existence of 100% tested beef might make consumers think that untested beef is not safe.

The same issues have been raised regarding the marketing of certified organic product and the use of various certification agencies such as Nutriclean.

Bottom line: the USDA is not charged with restricting consumer choice or preventing marketers from looking for niche markets or a competitive edge.

A couple of month’s ago Creekstone Farms, a Kentucky-based producer of what it calls “Natural Black Angus Beef,” announced that it has filed a lawsuit against the USDA challenging its ban on voluntary BSE testing. It is hard to imagine why it shouldn’t win.

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