Foreign buyers are saying 'no way' to biotech grains. With those crops in the U.S. feed pipeline, will pork be next?

Your customers are asking more from the pork you produce. They want better quality, market-specific genetics and the right amount of lean. You can work to deliver those characteristics.

But what if customers tell you now they want pork from hogs that were not fed any genetically modified grain, like soybean meal made from Roundup Ready soybeans, or Bt corn? Could you deliver?

If the international controversy over GM grain keeps growing as it has during the last six months, you may be hearing that kind of request, especially from customers who serve export markets. U.S. producers of GM grains face that situation right now. They could lose important world markets because foreign governments and other grain buyers are saying that GM grain may be unsafe and that consumers don't want it.

The Food and Drug Administration has cleared GM grain for use in U.S. food products. Today, many hogs and other food animals consume GM corn and soybean meal. Of course this has led to the question, will foreign buyers next scrutinize U.S. pork from hogs fed GM grain?

The possibility can't be ruled out, according to Thad Lively, vice president for international programs at the U.S. Meat Export Federation. "Governments are going to get involved and determine what regulations are appropriate," Lively says. "It wouldn't surprise me if countries did look at meat."

Lively has not heard of any countries slowing or stopping U.S. pork purchases because of the GM issue – yet. But the potential for the grain controversy to spill over into meat exists.

U.S. grain producers have widely adopted GM technology (see sidebar). But now, as the international debate has grown, producers face real possibilities of decreased demand for GM grain. European and Asian buyers have been slow to approve and accept GM grains from the United States and are leaning toward labeling food products if they include or were made from GM grain. European Union governments recently backed a measure that will require labeling on any food where at least one ingredient contains more than 1 percent of GM material.

Japan announced it will require labeling on food products that can be tested for the presence of GM material. The label will say whether the food products contain GM or non-GM ingredients and whether or not those ingredients were segregated or non-segregated (GM and non-GM mixed). New Zealand, Australia and South Korea also are looking at the issue.

Some see the GM labeling as a way for foreign countries to protect their markets, but foreign governments are not necessarily leading the anti-GM grains campaign. Kevin Natz, manager of trade relations for the U.S. Grains Council, says firms in Japan that buy grain for food products are promoting "GM-free" as a competitive advantage right now. "Several firms have already said they're going to move to GMO-free, and that puts pressure on other companies to do the same," Natz says.

Such actions have brought the issue to the forefront in the United States. FDA, which requires labeling only of food made from GM grains if the crops differ in composition, nutritional profile, safety or allergenicity, is asking if its policy should change.

The government also is gathering information for the World Trade Organization Round of negotiations, which opened in Seattle in late November. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman and U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky told the House Agriculture Committee that the acceptance of biotechnology will be among the tougher issues in the trade talks.

If the biotechnology controversy does turn to U.S. meat produced from livestock fed GM grain, there is good news and bad news. The good news is that research shows that meat is not affected by the modified grain genetics, says USMEF's Lively. The bad news is the biotech companies have not yet shared that research with agencies like USMEF. "It's one thing for us to make the assertion to consumers and buyers that the meat is unaffected, but it would be better to have the research in hand," Lively says.

More problems could arise if countries want to label U.S. pork according to the kind of grain the hogs were fed. That's because unlike GM grain, meat produced with GM grain versus non-GM grain can't be differentiated with a test. According to Ralph Hardy president of the National Agricultural Biotechnology Council, the building blocks of these introduced genes and resultant proteins are similar to those already in the grain. The animal digests these genes and proteins to the same basic chemical nutrients as any other gene or protein found in feed.

That science, along with little international attention focused on the meat issue, leaves Nick Giordano, international trade counsel with the National Pork Producers Council, aware but not alarmed. "We've done well by science in the past," he says.

If the EU were to take action to block or label U.S. pork produced with GM grains, the impact on exports wouldn't be huge. Japan is another story, but "I don't see anything imminent from Japan," Giordano says.

Since the GM grain-fed meat issue has not fully surfaced, USMEF's Lively says the strategy is to be prepared rather than to bring the issue to the surface. "When you start trying to make people aware of the facts, it has the opposite of the desired effect," he says. "So for the moment, we just need to be ready to respond."