Why China is Banning Canadian Meat Imports

China has recently instated a ban on all beef and pork imports from Canada after finding traces of ractopamine, a feed additive banned in China, on multiple pork products in Canadian imports.

Ractopamine is a beta-agonist: a synthetic compound that rapidly binds onto muscle and fat cells to promote rapid cell growth. Beta-agonists differ from hormone additives found in beef cattle as they affect cell growth and feed efficiency in animals without altering their hormonal levels. The use of ractopamine in livestock is banned in about 160 countries, including all of the EU, China and Russia. Ractopamine is prohibited in these countries due to a lack of findings advocating for the safety of beta-agonist consumption in humans.

Ractopamine in Canada

In Canada, ractopamine is permitted as a feed additive for turkeys, cows (except dairy cows) and hogs. The World Health Organization (WHO) has established a maximum residue limit (MRL) of ractopamine in meat, meaning the maximum quantity of the additive that is found in the animal tissue at the time of sale that is considered “safe” for human consumption.  Health Canada has adopted the WHO’s limits into its own regulations for livestock farmers in Canada. Additionally, Health Canada consulted the extensive research conducted by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), a federal agency of the USA responsible for food safety, and deemed their findings relating to human health and safety adequate to approve the use of the drug in livestock.  

Why do we allow ractopamine in Canada?

Ben Bohrer, an assistant professor at the University of Guelph, and president of the Canadian Meat Science Association explains that ractopamine is an exception to research findings which link beta-agonists to heart complications and developmental, neurobiological, genotoxic and carcinogenic effects. This is due to ractopamine’s ability to metabolize through the animal’s system much quicker than some other beta-agonists. He believes that the trace levels of the drug found in the meat are so minimal that the effects on the consumer are negligible. Though, even with allowable residue levels of ractopamine established by credible sources (such as the WHO), the reality is that the effects of the drug on human health are still unknown.

Ractopamine and international trade

The majority of the international market won’t accept products containing ractopamine. To remain a prominent trade competitor, Canada instituted the Canadian Ractopamine-Free Pork Certification Program in 2013 which provides assurance to international buyers that pigs raised according to the program standards have never come in contact with ractopamine. Certificates from this program are the cause of the current conflict with Chinese importers. Upon discovering traces of ractopamine amongst Canadian shipments, Chinese trade officials conducted an investigation and found nearly 190 falsified certificates. Not only do these claims negatively affect Canada’s credibility as a trade-partner but could also significantly impact the Canadian economy as China is Canada’s third-largest export market for pork; a market valued at $500 million in 2018. Canadian authorities are looking into the falsified certifications identified by Chinese trade officials. The possibilities being examined are dramatic flaws in the ractopamine-free certification process or alternatively that the shipments did not, in fact, originate from Canada but from outside suppliers looking to gain access to Chinese markets.

How does this affect organics?

Organic producers are strictly prohibited from using hormone additives, including beta-agonists like ractopamine. Producers and operators wishing to certify their products as organic must undergo a rigorous certification and inspection process to assure that organic integrity is upheld in all steps of the supply chain. Read more about hormone use and how organics differs in our More Than Just Hormone-Free blog.  

The ractopamine issue raises larger questions of food fraud and public trust for Canadian producers and consumers, including organics. The Canada Organic Logo and claim currently enjoy high levels of public trust as do Canadian “local” products, in general.  However, as the integrity and origin of our food are increasingly called into question, will Canadian consumers and Canada’s major trading partners’ trust be eroded, and with it their willingness to pay a higher price? 

In an effort to strengthen this public trust, the Canadian government recently announced a $24M fraud prevention budget focused on part of their inaugural national food policy. OCO and partners are pleased to see this commitment and other recent actions by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to strengthen the traceability of organic products throughout the supply chain. While major trading partners, like the United States, have centralized public traceability tools, such as the USDA’s Organic Integrity Database, Canada has no public database vouching for the authenticity of organic claims, making it difficult to track and verify organic products in a timely and trusted manner. 

Incidents like the China-Canada ractopamine dispute and more recent concerns regarding the authenticity of honey undermine the public trust in all food products, especially claims like organic which command a higher price. Given that two out of three Canadians spend at least part of their weekly grocery bill on higher-priced organic products, and that Canada exports at least $600 M in organic products, it is increasingly important that the Canadian government invests in the integrity of our food systems.

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