No ribs to spare amid epidemic : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

No ribs to spare amid epidemic: An import ban sets baby back prices on fire in the U.S.

By Steve Wiegand Bee Staff Writer (Published April 10, 2001)

There are sick cows in England. This is costing pig farmers in Denmark big money. And that means lots of Americans may be deprived of their favorite meal -- or at least have to pay more for it. When it comes to baby back ribs, it is indeed a small world after all.

That tasty staple of barbecue joints from Dallas to Dixon and Raleigh to Rancho Cordova may be the first U.S. casualty of the foot-and-mouth epidemic now ravaging European agriculture.

Why? Because the Bush administration, in an effort to prevent the disease from spreading here, has banned the importation of all nonprocessed meats from Europe.

And about half the baby back ribs consumed each year in this country -- about $100 million worth -- come from a nation better known for Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales, cheese and flaky pastries.

"Along with the Canadians, Denmark is our main competitor," said Dallas Hockman, a vice president with the National Pork Producers Council. "They are very big players when it comes to ribs in particular."

In fact, it could be said that, thanks to the Japanese, the Danes invented baby back ribs.

Despite their name, baby back ribs don't come from the backs of baby pigs. They actually come from the backs of adult pigs, more specifically the rib sections nearest the spinal column. The lower part of the rib, which contains much more fat, is sold as spareribs, or "St. Louis" ribs.

About 20 years ago, Denmark, which is the world's third-largest pork exporter behind only the United States and Canada, began selling boneless pork loins to Japan. But the Japanese had no use for the bones left behind after the loin was trimmed away from the pig's back. So the Danes began exporting "baby backs" to the United States, which already had a long tradition of gnawing on spareribs. The baby backs caught on in a big way, enough that American pork producers began making them, too.

"It's one of the fastest-growing menu items in food service," said Hockman, who is charged by the nation's pig producers to increase the nation's consumption of pork. "It's very popular, so supply is always tight, and that's been good for us."

Barbecue purists will tell you the Danish variety are superior -- possibly because the Danes tend to butcher their pigs when they are younger and smaller, or maybe just because of the allure of imported meat. Many of the largest restaurant chains that serve ribs favor those from Denmark (although Hockman suggests the favoritism is due to the fact that Denmark subsidizes its pork farmers so they can undercut domestic prices). Whatever the reason, as the import ban lingers, some restaurateurs are getting a little nervous.

"Ever since we have been offering baby back ribs, which goes back to the mid-'80s, we have been offering ribs from Denmark," said Tim Smith, spokesman for the Dallas-based Chili's restaurant chain. "What we have on hand could be measured as a several-weeks supply. ... If the ban isn't lifted, long-term we would have to look at other sources of supply. The other alternative would be to look at some other form of rib product that is available domestically."

But the ban is having an effect on the domestic version as well, in the classic supply-and-demand manner: It's driving up prices.

"A year ago, I was paying $2.99 a pound for them," said Dino Vergolini, owner of Texas West Barbecue on Fulton Avenue, where his domestic-grown baby backs are his No. 1 seller. "Now, I'm paying $4.22, and I hear they might go over $5."

At the Pit Stop Barbecue in Rancho Cordova, owner Hossein Pejouhesh is considering something restaurants usually reserve for pricing lobster: letting the price of his baby backs float according to what they cost him.

"I don't want to do that," he said, "but right now, I don't make a cent on a single order of baby backs."

The shortage is even hitting the baby back do-it-yourselfers. According to Carolyn Konrad, a spokesperson for the Raley's and Bel-Air supermarket chain, baby back prices have gone from $4.99 a pound to $6.99 a pound in the past two weeks. Konrad said the stores sell only domestic ribs, so supply isn't a problem -- yet.

Meanwhile, the only thing barbecuing at the Danish Embassy in Washington, D.C., these days is the collective temper of Danish officials. They have been arguing for weeks with U.S. officials that not a single case of the highly contagious disease has been recorded in Denmark since the early 1980s.

"We have explained all of the extraordinary measures we have taken, but so far, they have not raised the ban and are treating Europe as a collective whole, which we totally disagree on," said Lis Frederiksen, the embassy's press attaché. "It's quite unfair to punish Denmark for a disease we have no control over in a country (England) a thousand miles away."

So far, the Danish arguments have fallen on deaf ears at the U.S. departments of State and Agriculture. A USDA spokesman said last week no parts of the import ban would be lifted until the number of foot-and-mouth cases in Europe showed signs of declining.

The stakes go far beyond the availability of a single commodity, no matter how delicious.

Foot-and-mouth disease is very rarely dangerous to humans, but wreaks economic havoc by killing young animals and retarding growth in older ones. If it established a foothold in the United States, the effect could be devastating. It could infect wildlife and require the killing of hundreds of zoo animals. Moreover, U.S. meat exports would be banned, crushing a $5 billion-a-year business.

"All that meat would be dumped on the U.S. market, driving down domestic prices at the same time farmers are paying huge sums to veterinary care and to destroy and get rid of infected and threatened crops," said Ron Plain, a professor of agricultural economics at the University of Missouri. "It would be a significant blow to the whole economy."

And that could put a damper on anyone's appetite, even for baby back ribs.

-- Martin Thompson (, April 10, 2001

Moderation questions? read the FAQ