Consumers are still incredibly sensitive about the animal protein feed issue. So should the industry be worried as the EC thinks again, asks Julia Glotz

Meat and bone meal - emotive stuff. And for many consumers, inextricably linked to the BSE epidemic of the 1990s, as 'cow cannibalism' came to symbolise everything that was wrong about the feeding practices used in the livestock industries.

This makes the EC's suggestion it might revise its current ban on meat and bone meal (MBM) tricky to say the least.

Although Brussels is not proposing to reintroduce MBM for cows if legalised again, animal protein feed would be strictly from and for non-ruminants only the close association between such feed and BSE raises the question as to whether this is a wound worth reopening.

What are the potential benefits of MBM? Are they solely cost related? And do they outweigh the risk of undermining consumer confidence in meat?

The EC says it's taking a science-led, risk-based approach to the matter. Its proposals on animal feed (see box) form part of TSE Roadmap 2, a strategy paper published in July that outlines how it proposes to manage BSE risk in the EU over the next five years.

As BSE risk has decreased over the years, the EC has gradually lifted some of the rules and restrictions imposed on the meat industries. The outright ban on animal protein feed could be next in line for revision, depending on whether new research by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the Community Reference Laboratory for Animal Proteins suggests this would be safe and could be traced reliably.

Of course, scientists saying it's safe is one thing; consumers feeling good about it is quite another. The idea of revising the animal feed ban has been mooted on a number of occasions over the past years, and each time it has been treated with suspicion.

The latest coverage in the national media kicked off last week by The Independent has elicited a similar response, with readers writing in to express concern. Kim Haywood, director of the National Beef Association, admits her heart sank when she saw the stories. "It's still an incredibly sensitive issue with consumers. For those who don't look at this issue all the time, alarm bells will be going off everywhere. I saw reports that could really jeopardise the reputation of British beef because the message is very blurred."

Cues from the consumer
Like others in the industry, Hayward believes there could be a case for reassessing the ban for non-ruminants if the science stacks up, but the industry must take its cues from consumers, she stresses. Retailers, in particular, are wary of a consumer backlash and have in the past been decidedly conservative on the subject of reintroducing MBM.

In 2007, following reports the EU was funding research into the ban, Asda and Sainsbury's said they would not sell meat products from animals fed on MBM.

Asda head of ethical sourcing Chris Brown is withholding judgement until EFSA's new scientific opinion is published early next year but stresses that consumer perception will always be the key consideration. "We need to know exactly what EFSA's decision will be, what the restrictions will be and what types of feed could be fed to what animals."

For pig and poultry producers, which would stand to gain the most if MBM were reintroduced, the retailers' potential reluctance towards MBM presents a quandary. Some believe there are financial advantages to be had if animal protein rather than imported soya could be used to feed pigs and poultry, but that would count for little if big-name supermarkets were not prepared to stock the products.

However, one producer thinks retailers might be persuaded to accept MBM-produced meat for standard and value ranges if it were considerably cheaper and labelled transparently for consumers. Others, though, question whether a switch from soya to MBM would achieve much in the way of cost savings at all. "If I'm being cynical, I'd imagine it would end up being priced just below the current feed," says one pig industry executive. "We don't in any way want to undermine our customers' confidence in our products where the advantage may be marginal."

Despite these uncertainties, many believe the EC will eventually give the green light to MBM for non-ruminants, provided it gets the go-ahead from the scientists. Why? Not because of potential cost savings to industry, but because of how MBM could fit into Europe's increasingly important sustainability agenda. The MBM ban has forced poultry and pig producers to add protein to animal diets using soya beans, mostly imported from Brazil, rather than using animal byproducts produced closer to home.

According to research from the University of Groningen, meat producers are importing 23 million tonnes of soya beans a year to replace 16 million tonnes of MBM. A reintroduction of MBM could be a greener way of getting protein into animals' diets and, as the EC itself points out, would reduce the EU's reliance on soya imports.

Then there's the issue of waste. Peter Bradnock, chairman of the British Poultry Council, says although the poultry industry can already get rid of most of its byproducts productively in petfood, for instance waste remains a problem.

"In terms of sustainability, we are adding a large amount of energy into byproducts that are then disposed of," he says. In June 2008, in the midst of the global food crisis, Patrick Wall (then chairman of EFSA) raised this very issue when he questioned whether it was ethical to throw away animal by-products when millions of people were starving.

If MBM does make it back on to non-ruminant menus, the British meat industries might simply opt out, suggests the pig industry executive. "We are 50% self-sufficient in pigmeat in this country. If the rest of Europe decides to adopt MBM, the British industry might decide this provides us with a tangible point of difference."

Passnotes: what the EC proposals mean

This sounds like a can of worms. What is the EC proposing? It wants to revise the outright ban to allow MBM from non-ruminants to be gradually reintroduced into the feed of non-ruminants. It's an area of discussion for the time being; the EC has not put forward any specific proposals.

So we'd be back to pre-BSE rules? No. MBM from ruminants has not been used to feed cows in the UK since 1988 (the EU followed with a similar ban in 1994), and no one is proposing to change that. And even on the non-ruminant side, where the use of MBM was banned in the UK in 1996 (followed by an EU-wide ban in 2001), the EC does not propose to reintroduce closed-loop or intra-species feeding - the practice of feeding, say, pigs to pigs.

Why does the EC want to relax the ban? The idea is to review, on a regular basis, the rules put in place in the wake of BSE, to ensure they are still proportionate with the risk posed by BSE, and to align the regs with the latest scientific evidence. The EC also believes other food safety areas might require more urgent attention than BSE. And there's also a concern about the impact on the environment, as the soya alternative is imported from Brazil.

On what basis can it claim changes would be safe? The EC says it won't relax the rules unless it has been advised by EFSA that the changes will be safe, and reliable traceability is in place.