Mad Cow Fears Boosting Beef Sales

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Mad cow disease, which is causing panic in Western Europe, poses no threat to the Russian meat industry and could prove to be a blessing in disguise, Deputy Agriculture Minister Sergei Dankvert said.

Fears about the contaminated meat has led Russia to ban most imports from Europe which, in turn, is providing a boost for the domestic beef industry, Dankvert said in a telephone interview.

"Since we reduced cattle and beef imports from Europe, the mentality of our [agriculture] industry has changed," Dankvert said. "We are starting to realize we need to raise our own meat instead of looking to the West."

While Europe has recorded more than 180,000 cases of BSE over the past 15 years, lack of technological progress in Russia has prevented the disease from reaching its borders, Dankvert said.

It is believed that cattle catch the disease from feed containing ground bone.

"We have been feeding vegetable-derived proteins to our animals for the past 10 years," Dankvert said. "Local meat farmers run a low risk of exposure from BSE — most farmers have not used feed from bone meal since the late '80s because they had no money to buy expensive fodder from abroad."

Western officials, however, fail to share the Agriculture Ministry's optimism about Russia's immunity to mad cow disease. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization this week named Russia as one of up to 100 countries outside Western Europe at risk due to British shipments of infected meat and bone meal. Britain exported such products until 1996.

The World Health Organization lists Russia as a recipient of contaminated beef.

Dankvert said, however, that no cases have been recorded in Russia.

The mad cow scare led Russia to halt beef imports from Britain, Portugal and Switzerland and cut shipments from France, Germany, the Netherlands and Ireland.

As a result, out of the more than 4 million tons of meat Russians consumed last year, less than 1.4 million tons came from abroad, according to the Agriculture Ministry. Beef imports totaled about 320,000 tons.

But meat producers point out that Russians love their meat and the domestic sector cannot produce nearly enough to satisfy their appetites.

Moreover, the number of livestock has fallen from 57 million in the early 1990s to just over 27 million in 2000, according to the government's Center for Economic Analysis and Forecast. The number of cattle has dropped by almost half, from 21 million in 1990 to 12.7 million last year.

Some meat producers fear that the ban on beef imports will lead to an increase in beef prices and hurt sales.

In a bid to release some pressure, Russia sealed a $19 million deal with the German state of Bavaria on Wednesday to import 10,000 tons of beef with an option for another 10,000 tons, Reuters reported.