Focused On Food Safety

Nowhere is food safety more of a front-page concern than in the European Union (EU). For American beef producers, that concern's been felt firsthand as a result of stringent hormone regulations that have halted U.S. beef exports to Europe since 1990.Among those 15 EU member countries, none has been as aggressive on food safety as Denmark, which hopes to position itself as a world leader in food safety.

Nowhere is food safety more of a front-page concern than in the European Union (EU). For American beef producers, that concern's been felt firsthand as a result of stringent hormone regulations that have halted U.S. beef exports to Europe since 1990.

Among those 15 EU member countries, none has been as aggressive on food safety as Denmark, which hopes to position itself as a world leader in food safety. Although few beef cattle are raised in Denmark, their food policy standards could raise the bar for future U.S. beef exports.

An island country with 5 million people in an area twice the size of Massachusetts, Denmark is known primarily for pork and dairy exports. Despite its small size, however, Denmark produces enough food annually to feed its 15 million people, plus export two-thirds of its ag products. In actuality, Denmark is the largest food exporter in the world when compared on a population basis.

"The Danish food industry prides itself on fulfilling high standards so we can export to Germany, China and the U.S.," says Peter Gaemelke, a pork producer and president of the Danish Farmers Union.

Half of Denmark's ag exports go to other EU countries, with Japan and the U.S. as its main export destinations outside the EU. Altogether, Danish ag exports go to more than 175 countries.

"We see the foodstuffs sector changing all over the world, and Denmark wants to be a leader in foodstuffs," says lb Byrge Sorensen of Denmark's ministry of agriculture. "In an international context, safe food is more and more the focus."

Sorensen attributes this food safety focus to the BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) outbreak in the early '90s.

"BSE was the first issue that led to major changes - not only in England, but all over Europe. Consumers demonstrated they want clear information and safe foodstuffs," he says.

With that cue from consumers and prestigious export trading partners established, here are steps the Danes intend to take on food safety.

Listen To Consumers Much of Denmark's current guidelines for producing foodstuffs stem from its 1995 Food Policy, put in place after the peak of the BSE outbreak. It places emphasis on food safety, consumer knowledge of food production, animal welfare and the environment. The result has been some of the highest food quality standards - both domestic and export - in the world.

Ten regional points across Denmark are utilized as a system of food safety controls from farm to fork. They oversee everything from chemical pollution and nutrition to the food flavorings used in the end product.

"What is most important is to have transparent guidelines," says Sorensen. "This is a national effort, but a lot is based on international guidelines." Denmark's hope, he adds, is: "It should be worthwhile for a country to have special standards when it comes to food safety."

At the forefront of Denmark's Food Policy is food safety. Denmark hopes to make its distinguishing mark in the export marketplace by voluntarily eliminating the use of all antibiotic growth promotants in livestock beginning in January 2000. This voluntary, national plan of action will make Denmark the only export-oriented country free of antibiotic use.

Danish producers already adhere to strict EU regulations on the use of growth promotants, and currently use half of the antibiotics they used two years ago. Current studies show no traces of antibiotics in Danish beef, poultry or pork, says Bent Claus Lassen, a producer who serves as chairman of theDanish Bacon and Meat Council and the Danish Ag Research and Food Council and vice-chairman of a slaughter cooperative.

At present, Lassen questions if it will give Denmark a competitive advantage, but says, "we hope so."

The Danes have also aggressively tackled Salmonella infections. In 1998, Salmonella screenings were implemented, concentrating on chickens and eggs, but monitoring beef and pork as well. Poultry producers are still checked every nine weeks. The result: Denmark has seen human Salmonella cases decline, according to Lassen.

And, Denmark is the only country voluntarily controlling and publishing results of zoonoses cases. Zoonoses are diseases transmitted from animals to humans through food.

"Denmark formed these voluntary plans because we feel the EU is too passive," Lassen says.

These food safety programs are also being put in place in part because the Danes do not believe irradiation is acceptable for general use to control microbiological problems in foods, Lassen says.

Denmark's Stand On GMO's The Danes are less definitive on their position when it comes to the ethics of producing products with the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

In the U.S., GMO technology has helped develop Roundup Ready corn and soybeans - crops that are tolerant to Roundup herbicide, and therefore require less tillage and herbicides.

Currently, only Roundup Ready soybeans are approved in Europe. Denmark calls for strict labeling of products produced from GMOs to alert consumers of such products.

"The ag sector regards gene technology as valuable technology - if it is used with care," says Lassen. "Genetically engineered products should be based on their characteristics and not characteristics created by genetic engineering."

But, for the environmentally conscious Danes, GMOs could offer some conservation-minded solutions. For example, GMO corn requires fewer pesticides.

"That's an example of using GMOs and caring for the environment," says Gaemelke. "We need to inform consumers about those benefits."

Animal & Environmental Welfare Touted as the "environmental capital of Europe," Denmark's producers face strict environmental and animal welfare laws. The aim is to utilize production practices that meet consumers' approval, says Gaemelke.

Awareness of livestock welfare has led to facilities that allow animals more space. Operations with free-range hens and pigs are increasing and, instead of all-year stabling, cattle are allowed to graze in the summer.

Ecological production without the use of herbicides, pesticides or fertilizers is also increasing and is supported by the government. In the last five years, the use of pesticides has been halved, Lassen says.

To minimize nitrogen seepage, 65% of farmland must be covered by green crops in winter. Therefore, many producers concentrate on winter crops of wheat, rye, rapeseed and barley.

Being "green" (environmentally friendly) has not paid dividends, says Lassen. But the hope is that in five years Denmark will have positioned itself enough with consumer conscience that it will pay off, he adds.

In the future, the Danes hope to learn how to market products to cover increasing production costs, Gaemelke says.

One of those strategies is organic production involving special feed and care of animals, no use of fertilizers or sprays and lower yields. Currently, 20% of milk in Denmark is produced organically and the trend is growing. Organic milk production has proven to be successful, though they are subsidized.

Lassen and Gaemelke both say they believe the modern consumer is increasingly willing to pay for products manufactured utilizing special farming techniques or animal-housing conditions.

"We think there's a market for foods produced without GMOs and growth hormones, and we are ready to compete," says Gaemelke.

Editor's Note: Kindra Gordon visited Danish beef producers in August while attending the Congress of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Although Henning Davidsen raises beef cattle in Denmark, he faces many of the same problems as American producers. His biggest concern: getting a good price for beef in Denmark.

Davidsen is one of a handful of beef producers in Denmark - a country noted mostly for its pork and dairy exports. Much like the rest of Europe, the Danish beef sector was adversely affected by the BSE or Mad Cow Disease outbreak in the United Kingdom. Today, the national herd is less than 700,000 head, compared to almost 1 million in the early 1980s.

Davidsen has a polled Simmental herd of 30 cow/calf pairs he raises on 116 acres - about the average size of Danish farms. Half the calf crop is retained each year to sell as breeding stock, the remainder are fed on the farm and slaughtered as 1,200-lb. bulls.

Beef prices haven't been favorable for Danish producers in recent years. Young bulls, Denmark's only specialized beef production, bring about 17 Danish Kroner/kg of carcass, with an average carcass weight of 245kg. (That's about $1.18/lb. of carcass.)

Despite subsidies provided by the European Union (EU), economically viable production of beef on a large scale is seldom possible. Large farms are limited by environmental laws requiring a balance between the number of animals and the acreage of a production unit. The more livestock the farmer has, the more land he must own to balance manure disposal. Therefore, most beef cattle are in small herds, where the owner also has other sources of income.

Davidsen works full time off the farm and, like many American farm families, the Davidsens have started their own bed and breakfast to generate more income. In addition to that income, Davidsen receives about $10,000 per year in subsidies for such things as not fertilizing his grassland because it's adjacent to a river, and a flat rate for each animal on the farm.

Davidsen has accepted producing beef in the EU without growth hormones. As for allowing U.S. beef into the EU, he says, "I would agree to bring in U.S. beef as long as it's labeled as hormone-fed beef."

He says the U.S. label alone isn't enough, because consumers may not realize those animals have been given hormones. "We should trade, but the consumer should be made aware."