Ross Clark

Banned Wagon | 15 March 2003

A weekly survey of world restrictions on freedom and free trade

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The BSE epidemic is in decline and British beef is once more allowed to be exported. But BSE fears still have their uses. On several occasions in the past couple of years, the United States Department for Agriculture (USDA) has withdrawn several thousand tonnes of Brazilian beef imports from the American market on the grounds of minor infringements of the rules on labelling. Two years ago, all imports of beef from Brazil were prohibited for several months 'pending the release of requested data to complete a bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) risk assessment'.

Americans consumers, meanwhile, are being wooed by a 'boycott Brazil' campaign run from the grasslands of Kansas, which claims to be 'attempting to help people understand the Brazilian mad-cow issue'. 'It is essential that all countries suspend the import of beef and associated products from Brazil,' the website announces, listing milk chocolate as one of the products which must be avoided. For good measure, it also throws in a few other health scares: 'Mould overwhelms Brazil' and 'Greenpeace recalled 500 promotional mousepads because water used to provide rubber surfaces was found to harbour fungal spores.'

It isn't difficult to understand the Brazilian mad-cow issue, because there isn't one. The USDA admits that there is no evidence to suggest BSE is present in Brazil, but nevertheless decided it would ban imports while it just made sure. It would be surprising if BSE were present, given that most cattle in Brazil are grass-fed and so not exposed to the bone-meal feeds implicated in the disease in Britain.

Brazil does, however, have a rapidly growing and competitive beef industry which threatens the livelihood of North American beef farmers. Exports of beef from Brazil to the US grew from 220,000 tonnes in 1996 to 840,000 tonnes in 2002. American beef production, by contrast, has stalled, falling 3 per cent between 2000 and 2001. Competing, of course, takes time and effort. Arousing fears about non-existent outbreaks of disease in faraway countries, on the other hand, comes free.