A Memo from Milan

Can Italians appreciate a buffalo that doesn’t provide mozzarella?

I had an opportunity to explore that question this past week at the Tutto International Food Show in Milan, Italy.

Tutto, which is held every two years in Milan, typically attracts more than 82,000 retailers, foodservice operators, distributors and other food industry professionals for a five-day exhibition and trade show.

The Colorado Department of Agriculture had reserved space in the USDA Pavilion at Tutto this year and offered to send me along to promote bison. With apologies to Don Corleone, it was an offer I couldn’t refuse.

Getting to-and-from the show venue was no small feat. Travel to the EU these days requires both a COVID vaccination plus a negative COVID test within 72 hours of arrival at the destination. Proof of COVID vaccination was required to enter the show venue, and mask-wearing was enforced throughout the event.

Once settled into the NBA booth in the USDA pavilion, the real work began. Nestled between New Belgium Brewing Co. and Boulder Distillery, I spent five days enticing attendees with samples of bison jerky and summer sausage, followed by a message about the great taste, nutritional attributes and environmental benefits of U.S. bison meat.

With the aid of an interpreter provided by the Colorado Department of Agriculture, I connected with chefs, distributors, and butcher shop owners. Interest and enthusiasm were high. Several distributors, retailers and restaurant operators wanted to know, “How can we get this great product?” That’s encouraging. It’s also frustrating.

It’s not like I was the first person promoting bison meat in Europe.

Several bison marketers have labored diligently for years to cultivate customers there. They’ve enjoyed some success in developing customers in Belgium, France and Germany, as well as within Switzerland, which is not part of the EU.

They’ve also encountered a significant roadblock: A 20% tariff imposed on every ounce of bison meat shipped into the EU. This tariff has no logical reason to exist.

The European Union’s policies prohibit importing any meat produced with the use of growth hormones. That’s a big problem for the beef industry, which regularly utilizes growth hormones in their production.

Years ago, though, the beef industry developed a special carve-out, called the High-Quality Beef Export Program. Under the terms negotiated with the EU, beef carefully source verified and audited to assure that the animals were produced without the use of growth hormones can be imported with zero percent tariff imposed.

Federal regulations prohibit the use of growth hormones in bison, so this should be an obvious opportunity for equal treatment. Well, yes. And no. Yes, because we naturally produce the kind of meat that European customers want. No, because this special program is called the High-Quality Beef Export Program. Bison isn’t beef.

This is not a new conundrum.  In 2012, 33 U.S. Senators from both parties signed a letter to then-Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and the U.S. Trade Representative urging that elimination of the 20% tariff be included in any trade negotiations with the EU. The Secretary and the Trade Ambassador both agreed.

The NBA recently reminded Secretary Vilsack and Trade Ambassador Tai of that previous commitment. Secretary Vilsack reaffirmed his commitment to address this issue.

Time will tell. Trade negotiations tend to move at a pace that makes snails resemble Olympic sprinters. Based on my brief connections with the food industry officials stopping by the NBA stand at Tutto, this is a marathon worth every ounce of energy.