Analyst at Organic Monitor have predicted high market growth for the organic meat sector as consumers fear for food safety raises consumer demand for organic meats. These products are perceived to be healthier than non-organic meats.
According to the company, the Canadian organic meat market expanded by 35 per cent in 2003 because of the BSE scare, and the US market is expected to show similarly high growth in 2004.
The report was carried out against the context of growing concern among Americans over where their food comes from. FoodProductionDaily.com reported yesterday that a Californian consumer group has been calling for beef sold in the state to carry country-of-origin labels, claiming that supermarket giant Safeway has been selling unlabelled beef from Canada.
A feeding practice linked to mad cow disease has not been banned in Canada, which has helped to heighten fears over the safety of the food supply chain. If the legislation becomes law, California would join three other states in requiring country of origin labels for beef.
The Organic Monitor report appears to confirm this trend. The survey, which analyses the major product segments in the North American organic meat products market, looks at market sizes, growth forecasts and market trends.
The organic poultry segment is the most important in the North American market for organic meat products. Organic chicken has been widely available in retailer outlets for a number of years due to the short production cycle, integrated production method, and low price premium of the product.
In contrast, organic beef and pork are still rarely found in retailers because of the low production volume and the high prices, which can be up to three times higher than conventional beef and pork. Prices are likely to decrease however as organic meat producers raise production levels and as more volume goes into the retail trade.
But some would argue that the trend towards increased organic consumption has more to do with the adoption of healthy eating habits in general than public hysteria towards the issue of BSE. Indeed the North American meat market remains buoyant, despite the number of animal health scares that have dominated the news for the past few months.
Diet has been identified as a major contributing factor. In the US alone, an estimated 59 million adults are currently on the popular low-carbohydrate, high-fat Atkins diet, according to figures from the Valen Group. This has had a remarkable impact on meat intake.
"The Atkins diet has had a huge effect on meat demand in North America," Jim Long, meat analyst and CEO of genetics company Genesus told FoodProductionDaily.com. "Meat is a good source of protein, and this has been identified as a good thing. And in North America, meat protein is also relatively cheap compared to the rest of the world."
As a result, there has been no decrease in consumption. "Avian flu has not affected sales," said Long. "Chicken prices in the US are higher than ever before. In July 2003 - after the BSE outbreak - beef consumption in Canada was 60 per cent higher per capita than the year before." And last January, the USDA estimated weekly hog slaughter was 2.096 million a week. This exceeded last year's levels by 120,000, representing the second largest January weekly slaughter ever, January 1999 being the largest.
Long believes there is a definite lack of hysteria towards the issue of BSE. This, he says, is quite rational.
"There are 45 million cattle, in North America, and two animals were caught with BSE," he says. "I think we should give people more credit - people clearly have confidence in the food system. It is certainly not the case that people are fearful of meat."