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European Union: Where is the Beef?

The following is a guest post by my colleague, Theresa Papademetriou, who is the Law Library of Congress Senior Foreign Law Specialist for the European Union, Greece, and Cyprus. Theresa has previously blogged on “New Greek Regulation Designed to Fight Tax Evasion Problem: Will it Work?” and on “The Cyprus Banking Crisis and its Aftermath: Bank Depositors be Aware“.

In February, good and bad news about the beef industry in the European Union (EU) appeared in the media. First, the good news. On February 6, 2013, three EU Commissioners announced that Japan and the EU lifted the ban on beef imports. As of February 1, 2013, Japan has allowed beef imports from two EU Member states, France and the Netherlands. For its part, the EU re-opened its market to import beef from Japan, including the much-sought Kobe beef and other beef products, after a 12 year hiatus.

Neither EU nor Japan are immune to the food crises, despite their high standards with regard to food safety.  In the past, both have been affected by food epidemics. An outbreak of the highly communicable foot and mouth disease (FMD) disease hit Japan in 2000 and again in 2010. Since 2010, the Japanese government has made significant progress in eradicating the disease. The World Organization for Animal Health which accredits Japanese beef, has designated Japan a FMD-free country.

Subsequently, the European Commission, after receiving a number of guarantees from Japan as to the safety of its beef, has renewed the authorization process which has been on hold since 2010. The EU also experienced a serious food crisis with the outbreak of the Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), commonly known as “mad cow disease.”  BSE is a brain disease that affects bovine animals. It has been found that the disease affects humans as well and has been linked to a new variant of Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease. During its peak, there were 195 confirmed cases in the EU of mainly young people affected by this disease.

The measures taken by the two trading partners were expected to have a positive impact on EU-Japan trade relations and particularly on facilitating negotiations for a future EU Free Trade (FTA) Agreement with Japan.

News regarding allegations that products labeled as containing beef had horse meat, however, broke out soon after the announcement of the lifting of beef import ban. On February 7, 2013 the British Food Standards Agency found out that horsemeat was mixed into frozen lasagna that was labeled as 100% pure beef. As a result, a large variety of frozen products in 16 countries were withdrawn from the market. British consumers were outraged.  “It’s a straight fraud,” said Britain’s environment minister, Owen Paterson, stating that “[i]f a product says it’s beef and you’re actually buying horse, that is a fraud.” Eating horsemeat, however, is not a taboo in other EU Member States and is sold in EU markets, provided that it is labeled as such.

After being alerted by the British Food Standards Agency, the European Commission used its emergency system to notify EU Members of the horsemeat news, and urged them to begin testing meat products for undeclared horsemeat and horsemeat injected with phenylbutazone (also known as ‘bute’). This substance is illegal if used in animals intended for human consumption.

In the aftermath of this recent food crisis, the Commission announced its intentions to propose new rules which will be applicable as of December 2014, with a view to harmonizing penalties in case of fraud in the supply chain. In addition, meat products must include information on their origin, and whether they contain added proteins from the same  kind of animal or not.  For its part, the European Parliament also emphasized the need for more tests and more accurate labeling.

If  Brits were dismayed at the mere idea of consuming horsemeat, across the Atlantic many Canadians who are considered as adventurous about new dishes, like shark-fin soup and other exotic foods, expressed enthusiasm and interest in trying this new delicacy.

As they say in Latin, de gustibus non disputandum est (English translation: There’s no arguing about taste). Right?

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