Ahead of the Heard. FILE PHOTO

Hog growth supplement ban helps exports

Could it work for beef?

Since about 2008 the Canadian hog industry has seen a growth-feed supplement eliminated from the hog production cycle. It wasn’t banned by government regulation; in fact, it is officially approved for use in hog feeding in Canada, USA, Mexico and Japan. The product is called Ractopamine, which causes hogs to digest their feed more efficiently, resulting in a cost saving of $2 to $4 per finished hog. That’s quite significant for an industry where profits and losses are measured in very small margins. The feed supplement was approved in Canada in 2000 and most producers quickly embraced its use; at the time, major pork importing countries had no policy on its use, but that changed quickly. Major importers like China, Russia and the EU soon made pork produced with Ractopamine illegal for import. As was the case with bans on antibiotic and steroid use in beef, the ban was not based on a shred of real science but on the usual junk science promoted by self-appointed public interest lobby groups.

Of course, the fact that a Ractopamine ban could serve as a non-tariff barrier as well as a handy trade negotiating stick was just a side benefit in the duplicitous world of trade dealing. The feed additive has absolutely no effect on human health but that’s beside the point. Did I mention the inconvenient truth that by not using Ractopamine the carbon footprint of hog production increases, as do CO2 emissions, because it takes longer to get hogs to market weight? That environmental consequence gets trumped, however, when there are trade advantages to be gained – it’s all so devious and calculating.

It became clear to the Canadian hog packing industry that if they wanted continual access to markets in Russia and China they would have to start buying and selling Ractopamine-free pork. Starting in 2008 they did just that and by 2017 no packing plant in Canada accepts hogs grown with the feed supplement. Producers had no say in the change and had to accept the production loss of up to $4 per head. The packers countered by stating that their action has kept export markets open to Canadian pork, particularly in China, where American exports have crashed because the industry in the US continues to use Ractopamine.

That perspective takes a bit of a hit in relation to Russia which initially banned pork produced with the feed additive but then later banned all pork imports from the west for geopolitical reasons. Such a change only proves that for all the supposed alleged good intentions of additive bans they can easily be overridden by political expediency. I expect that if China decided that they wanted to increase American exports they would just as easily change the ban on the feed additive. One notes that the Chinese recently changed their policy on American beef imports after coming to a political understanding on other trade issues with the new Trump administration. It seems that one day’s ban is the next day’s trade-off.

So, what has the Ractopamine ban got to do with beef production and marketing? It could be seen as a precedent in how to deal with the endless antibiotic and steroid use issue. Would it be possible for Canadian beef processors to phase in a ban on cattle fed any feed additives and supplements in the hope that it would improve the marketing of beef both domestically and that destined for export? I expect packing industry marketers and economists have agonized over that possibility. The questions always are: who would take the first step; could a premium be extracted out of the marketplace; would new formerly restricted markets open up; would verification be cost effective; what would it cost feedlot operators; and on and on.

It might work if Canada allowed only non-additive beef imports but there would surely be an American reaction to such a non-tariff barrier. Retailers and restaurants could help if they were committed to buying non-additive Canadian beef but, as we know, given a choice the marketplace will always seek out the cheapest legal product no matter where it comes from. I expect it worked for the hog industry because it is smaller and more flexible with fewer, more nimble packers who are not so dependent on the American market. The elephant in the room is that governments are expected to restrict feed additives and growth supplements out of existence. That may well end the whole debate and marketing situation.

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