China's rejection of some North American pork, including products from Manitoba, shouldn't shake consumer confidence in Canada, industry experts said Tuesday.
China has suspended shipments from a pork-processing plant operated by Maple Leaf Foods Inc. (TSX:MFI) in Brandon, Man., because its products contain the feed additive ractopamine, which is used to increase lean meat in hogs.
Michael Young, the Calgary-based director of Canada Pork International, said consumers should question the rejection.
"The Chinese have some of the sloppiest food safety standards on the planet," said Young.
Young points out pork with ractopamine is accepted in Japan, which has some of the world's strictest food safety standards.
"It's really a matter of meat scientists looking at it, examining the risk factors, and determining what is a safe level," he said.
Ractopamine was approved for use in Canada in 2006 and in the U.S. about seven years ago, but China has prohibited it since 2002. The feed additive is also banned in the European Union, but biologist George Foxcroft said it had little to do with the conclusions from scientists, which were identical on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.
"It's got nothing to do with logic. It's part to do with politics, and it's part to do with trade barriers," said Foxcroft, a University of Alberta professor who specializes in swine reproduction.
Ractopamine is a class of neurotransmitter, rather than a hormone, Foxcroft said.
"It's found to have this somewhat bizarre effect when you treat animals with it in the diet, it somehow triggers a reaction whereby through neural systems, it directs nutrients into proteins instead of fat," he said.
Ractopamine is considered safe because it has almost instant clearance from an animal's system, unlike growth hormones, which can be detected many days later, said Foxcroft.
Industry insiders suggest China could be responding to North America's criticisms of Chinese goods, including last spring's tainted pet food scare, and a massive toy recall.
"It's interesting that they've been importing pork from the U.S. since 2000, yet this only began to be an issue this past summer," Martin Rice, executive director for the Canadian Pork Council, said in a telephone interview from Manjing, China.
"It's been two years since Canada has been using it, and therefore two years that we've had product going to China."
Rice is in the country on a trade mission, planned months before the recent restrictions on the Brandon plant.
Pork, the protein of choice in China, has doubled in price over the past year. The Canadian Pork Council, which represents 10,000 hog producers, is courting China to expand Canada's export market. Rice believes the new restrictions will make China's favourite meat even harder to find, and more expensive.
"This situation is limiting them in their availability of choices. Every supplier, other than the European Union, makes use of this product."
Rice said the Canadian government has to engage in a scientific discussion with Chinese authorities about ractopamine.
China has also suspended shipments from 10 U.S. pork plants.