One Man's Trash is Another Man's Risk-Free Beef

MANHATTAN, US – The saying goes “You are what you eat,” but perceptions about what you’re eating when it comes to beef can vary widely from one country to another.
calendar icon 4 March 2008
clock icon 4 minute read

Using data from more than 4,000 consumers surveyed across four countries, agricultural economists from Kansas State University, Michigan State University and Maastricht University (Netherlands) found that consumers in Japan and Mexico have more concerns about beef food safety than do consumers in the United States and Canada.

“Food safety concerns have created havoc in global beef markets in recent years,” said Ted Schroeder, agricultural economist with K-State Research and Extension and one of the study’s authors. “Most noteworthy in North America was a loss of major export markets following the discovery of cattle in the United States and Canada infected with BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) in 2003.”

Agricultural economics researchers involved in the study included Schroeder, James Mintert of Kansas State, Glynn Tonsor of Michigan State, and Joost Pennings of Maastricht University.

The four countries studied represent major markets for U.S. beef.

In addition to finding that Japanese consumers are more “risk averse” with respect to beef food safety, the economists found that relative to U.S. and Canadian consumers, Japanese and Mexican consumers perceive beef to be less safe and consider eating beef to involve greater food safety risk.

Other findings of the study included:

  1. Food safety perceptions and attitudes, and interaction between the two, contribute to reductions in beef consumption by at least some consumers in each of the four countries, with impacts most pronounced in Japan and Mexico.

  2. From policy and industry perspectives, a beef food safety event in the United States and Canada can be dealt with by quickly containing the hazard and informing consumers about the low probability of adverse health effects associated with consuming the product. For Japanese consumers, a beef food safety concern requires greater assurance that steps have been taken to eliminate a potential hazard.

  3. Canadian and American respondents generally believe that beef products are safe, though they perceive that E. coli 0157:H7 poses the highest risk, with about 50 percent of respondents indicating moderate risk or greater. About 60 percent of respondents in Canada and the U.S. rated BSE as low or very low risk.

  4. Japanese respondents generally perceived low risk levels for beef except for BSE, which more than 50 percent of the respondents rated “high” or “very high risk.”

  5. Overall, Mexican respondents have greater concerns about beef food safety than consumers in the other three countries.

“The high risk perceptions of Mexican respondents for food safety hazards that have low incidence rates suggest that Mexican consumers have a higher concern about food safety than consumers in the other three countries,” Schroeder said. “The reason for that is unknown. Perhaps they experience more food safety-related illnesses than do consumers in the other countries. Food safety concerns may also be influenced by other factors such as media and government announcements.”

“The lack of knowledge among consumers about some beef food safety concerns is noticeable,” Mintert said. “In particular, the most common response in Canada, the United States and Japan is that consumers don’t know the risk levels associated with Listeria, Campylobacter, and Staphylococcus aureus. This could be because the incidence level of these foodborne pathogens is low, and generally receive little media attention. For that reason, consumers may simply be unfamiliar with them.”

The findings of this and future work indicate that a concerted industry effort to ensure that beef is free of any food safety concern is essential if beef is to regain market share because Japanese consumers, in particular, have a very low tolerance for even a small probability that beef contributes to food safety problems, Mintert said.

“Information reassuring consumers needs to be combined with a stringent, auditable set of changes in industry and government inspection standards to avoid large sustained losses in consumer demand,” Schroeder added.

Data Show Differences in U.S. Beef Exports Before and After 2003 BSE Discovery

Through the 1990s the U.S. beef industry worked hard to develop new markets for its product, and the work paid off in large increases in exports compared with previous decades. Then came the discovery of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in North America in late 2003, which sparked consumer concerns that led to trade disruptions.

For example, in 2001, Japan bought 513,000 metric tons of U.S. beef at a value of $1.6 billion, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data available on the U.S. Meat Export Federation Web site. In comparison, in 2004, Japan bought 797 metric tons at a value of $3.7 million. In 2006, trade had increased, but only totaled 13,700 metric tons at a value of $66.4 million.

A similar scenario was reported in Mexico, where in 2001, Mexico bought 311,000 metric tons of U.S. beef at a value of $775 million. In 2004, U.S. beef sales to Mexico fell to 198,000 metric tons at a value of $566 million. However, by 2006, U.S. beef sales to Mexico actually exceeded 2001’s, rebounding to 371,000 metric tons, valued at $1.2 billion.

Further information about beef exports is available on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Web site and on the U.S. Meat Export Federation site and search for beef exports.

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