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Devastating trade

by Claudia Isabel Rittel
Rudolf Buntzel and Francisco Mari: Das globale Huhn. Hühnerbrust und Chicken Wings – Wer isst den Rest? [The global chicken. Chicken breast and chicken wings – who eats the rest?] Brandes und Apsel, Frankfurt am Main 2007, 179 p., €19.90, ISBN 3-86099-852-8

“We must be aware that, in the global economy, more livelihoods are destroyed with a simple stroke of the pen, than all well-meaning efforts of development assistance can protect over a period of many years,” claim Francisco Mari and Rudolf Buntzel in this book. Starting with the example of Cameroon, where imported chicken parts from Europe became crippling competition for the local poultry sector, the authors assess an entire industry at the global level.

In Europe today, most consumers eat only chicken breasts. Therefore, European food companies sell off the remaining poultry parts internationally – at prices below production cost. Doing so is cheaper than disposing of flesh, bones and skin at home. Of course, this dumping practice is distorting markets, particularly in West Africa. People in Cameroon used to either eat their own chickens or buy them from local markets. Everything changed in 1995, when Cameroon joined the World Trade Organisation (WTO). In 1994, the country imported 12 tons of chicken meat per year. Two years later, it was importing 850 tons. By 2003, after the feeding of meat and bone meal to animals was banned in the EU, imports had increased tenfold again, to 8500 tons.

According to Buntzel and Mari, European consumers suffer from this system too. The authors claim that recurring scandals involving sales of outdated meat are the “logical consequence of an international meat economy”. It is true that every single piece of meat is subject to strict controls, from when it is bred to the time it reaches the supermarket shelves. But no records are kept about what happens to meat which is not sold before its use-by date. Accordingly, there is no control over “how much of it returns into the food chain”. In West Africa, health risks are considerable, as meat chunks are often not kept refrigerated until they are sold. According to Buntzel and Mari, the nations of West Africa have virtually no chance of protecting themselves from destructive EU exports.

The authors report many interesting details. They have a solid understanding of the global political, economic and legal implications. At times, however, Buntzel and Mari stray off course – for instance when they elaborate on eating habits of the past or discuss the societal relevance of chickens. In order to reach a wide range of readers – in keeping with the kind of consumer education the authors have in mind – the book should have been tightend up some more.

All summed up, the book makes two things abundantly clear. First, consumers in rich countries are unwittingly harming the markets of poor countries. That, however, is only possible because – second – there is a lack of sound international regulations. Importing countries should be permitted to adopt self-protection rules, claim the authors. They also call for meat exporters to bear some responsibility for the safety of their products in the target country. As this is unlikely to occur in the foreseeable future, they suggest certifying export businesses. That would allow consumers to purchase unproblematic products, thus taking an active stand against harmful business practices. (cir)