26 January 1996

Germans try to restore beef-eating confidence

Irish food promoters took full advantage of the UKs absence from the 61st International Green Week Festival in Berlin. Irish farm minister Ivan Yates led the Irish beef export drive while the Germans launched their own initiative to restore consumer confidence, as Tony McDougal reports

CONCERN over a 10% slump in beef consumption due to fears over the cattle brain disease BSE prompted the German ministry of agriculture to launch a beef promotional exhibition at Green Week.

The decline in beef consumption a head, from 24kg a person a year in 1990 to just 17kg a person a year last year, has affected imports from countries such as Argentina, France and Ireland and virtually destroyed the British export market.

Media coverage of the disease since it was first reported in the German Press in 1990 has seriously undermined consumer confidence. But Germany has only reported four BSE cases which have all been traced back to UK imported cattle.

Jochen Borchert, German farm minister, said he hoped the launch of a national trademark scheme – promoting quality products and traceability – would reassure consumers.

He also held talks with Irish farm minister Ivan Yates on increasing Irish beef imports, which have fallen from a pre-BSE scare height of 14,000t a year to between 10,000-12,000t in 1995.

While the Irish were present in force, there was no official UK presence from Food from Britain or the Meat and Livestock Commission.

The MLC claimed an appearance at the "consumer show" was not cost-effective and might be seen by some as "heavy-handed".

But Tara Macarthy, German export manager for the Irish Food Board, said Germany was a vital market with a huge consumer buying force, which had been hit by a crisis of confidence.

"Germany is our second largest export market for beef after Britain. Unfortunately, consumer trust has been lost, and there is a feeling of cynicism bordering on paranoia.

An amazing 95% of the population is aware of BSE."

The MLC claims it is still fighting to improve the sales market in Germany, and attended the ANUGA biannual food fair in Cologne in October and a trade fair in Frankfurt last month.

The Green Week exhibition, Safeguarding the Quality of Meat, looked at the origin of meat from farmer to consumer, but also touched on other sensitive issues including animal transport, slaughter and research and development.

Freiherr Heereman, German Farmers Union president, said farmers were improving their competitive position through improved livestock identification.

"Since last year, each calf has been given an animal pass stating its origin and owner. As a result, we now have a perfectly tight system for checking the origin of agricultural produce."