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Published February 13, 2013, 10:13 AM

Safety, science and public perception

Local experts weigh in on Russia's decision this week to suspend imports of U.S. meat. Russia cited a controversial feed additive as its reason.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

U.S. livestock officials are hoping that the Russian suspension of U.S. meat imports, announced Feb. 11, will be short-lived.

But no matter what happens, there are questions about the public perception of ractopamine, the controversial feed additive involved in the Russian action.

The immediate concern, however, is the suspension. Russia, the sixth-largest importer of both U.S. pork and beef, bought more than half a billion dollars of the two products last year.

“Maybe they can get this straightened out pretty soon. Let’s hope so,” says Dar Geiss, a Pierz, Minn., producer and president of the Minnesota State Cattleman’s Association.

He and others note that health experts around the world, including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, agree that the additive is safe.

Gerald Stokka, assistant professor of livestock stewardship at North Dakota State University, also thinks ractopamine is safe.

“There’s no safety issue, that’s for sure,” he says.

His concern, however, is whether “we’re making a product that’s somehow less favorable and less well received by the public,” Stokka says.

Using ractopamine, even though it’s safe and beneficial, could seriously damage beef’s popularity with consumers, he says.

“We’re very concerned with what consumers perceive,” he says. “Some of those issues are still being talked about in the beef industry.”

Some U.S. livestock producers add ractopamine to the feed they give their animals. The additive allows animals to convert more of their feed into lean protein and less into fat.

The use of ractopamine is most common with pigs, but it’s fed to cattle and turkeys, too. Some larger cattle feedlot operations on the Northern Plains use ractopamine, though smaller ones generally don’t because use of the additive needs to be managed carefully, Stokka says.

He compares the use of ractopamine in livestock to the use of fertilizer with crops, with both resulting in production gains.

The difference is, public perception is crucial to beef sales. If the public doesn’t approve of the additive, the production benefit it provides might be more than offset by the cost of lost sales, Stokka says.

“It’s something we need to consider,” he says.

Russia’s motive questioned

Russian officials cited concern about traces of ractopamine found in U.S. meat as the reason for suspending imports. The officials insist they have scientific proof that ractopamine is unsafe, according to published reports.

Tim Petry, livestock economist with the North Dakota State University extension service, doesn’t buy that.

“They say it’s for safety. Quite frankly, it’s because they want to increase their self-sufficiency” in meat production, he says.

Russian imports of U.S. beef have been growing sharply, and ractopamine was a convenient excuse to end that, Petry says.

Russia’s action on Feb. 11 was not unexpected. Even so, “It’s going to be detrimental (to U.S. meat prices) when you lose an important market,” he says.

Last year, Russia accounted for 7.1 percent of all U.S. beef exports and 4.4 percent of all U.S. pork exports, Petry says.

Russia imported roughly $305 million of U.S. beef and $280 million of U.S. pork in the first 11 months of 2012, according the U.S. Meat Export Federation.

It’s uncertain what percentage of the imported beef and pork actually contained ractopamine, Joe Schuele, communications director for the export federation, tells Agweek.

In any case, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk quickly denounced the suspension.

Vilsack and Kirk, as well as others, stressed that ractompaine was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and that extensive international studies have found the additive to be safe.

Russia began demanding in December that the U.S. government certify U.S. meat exports to Russia contain no traces of ractopamine. U.S. officials refused, saying traces of the additive are no health risk to consumers.

As a result, U.S. meat exports to Russia dropped sharply after December, Schuele says.

Focus on science

The real issue is whether Russia will use science in formulating its trade policies, says Kent Bacus, the associate director of legislative affairs for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

“This is not a science-based decision at all. This is Russia trying to create leverage on trade,” he says.

Russian consumers are satisfied with U.S. meat, he says.

“We’ve been doing quite well to sell a lot to Russian consumers. It was the Russian government that shut us down,” he says.

“We hope cooler heads will prevail and objective standards will be put in place,” he says.

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