The US has banned Canadian beef and cattle imports. The re-emergence of mad cow disease has caused widespread jitters across Canada and the US. The fear generated may prove to be mere caution or wildly irrational behaviour but, either way, food companies are now faced with the same heavy task of rebuilding consumer trust.

When mad cow disease was limited to Europe, US manufacturers, foodservice companies and meat-handlers were worried, but not seriously financially damaged. Indeed, some profited from the banning of UK beef across the world. In Europe, companies like McDonald’s changed their focus from beef burgers to chicken and pork products, neatly sidestepping consumer fears.

With a new occurrence in Alberta, Canada, many in the US are far more worried. Wall Street quickly punished the stocks of Tyson Foods, the Outback Steakhouse and McDonald’s, with drops of up to 7%. The US department of agriculture immediately, temporarily, banned all ruminants and ruminant products from Canada. Canadian meat auction markets closed for the week, disrupting both Canadian and US meat supplies. According to Reuters, Gary Sargent of Alberta Beef Producers estimates that Alberta cattle and beef exports to the US are worth about $8m a day.

While much of this reaction has been somewhat out of proportion to the actual risks, most consumers, and financial analysts, prefer to be safe than sorry. Nevertheless, given the small amount of information confirmed at the time of these initial actions, and the fact that the risk to human health and the possibility of transmission to animals in the US is very low, those most affected could claim injustice, fuelled by sensationalising media attention and ignorance. Last year in the US, less than 5% of the cattle slaughtered and beef products made were sourced from Canada.

Manufacturers, retailers and foodservice providers will have to work very quickly to restore confidence and devise alternative means of revenues just in case beef consumption does drop significantly. Addressing consumers’ shaken perceptions and emotions by building trust through visible action and clear, practical, comprehensible information, will now be more vital than ever before.

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