Restaurants May See Ribs Shortage

Baby back ribs may be in short supply in many U.S. restaurants if the temporary ban on meat imports from the European Union continues for long.

The Danish pork product is popular with barbecue-loving Americans. It is the major victim of USDA's ban on European Union meat, imposed after an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease spread from Britain and Ireland to France. Now, the disease has spread to The Netherlands.

The United States imports about $300 million worth of meat from the EU, two-thirds of that is Danish pork. Ribs account for 60 percent of the Danish shipments. Another 30 percent are processed hams, which aren't included in the ban.

Baby back ribs were developed by the Danish livestock industry about 20 years ago, as producers needed a market for what was then considered scrap. They found eager buyers in the United States, and now U.S. farmers have developed a similar product. About half the baby back ribs sold in the United States are from Danish farms.

U.S. restaurants have about a four- to six-week supply of the Danish ribs on hand, says Steven Grover, a vice president of the National Restaurant Association. The ban "could create shortages for both restaurants and consumers."

USDA Secretary Ann Veneman stresses that the import ban is under constant evaluation. ``We're going to follow all the protocols and assess risk," she says. "It's all based on risk assessment and threat to our own agriculture."

The restaurant association endorsed the import ban but has urged USDA to make Denmark its first priority as the department considers lifting the suspension for specific countries.

One national restaurant chain, Outback Steakhouse, is considering switching to a U.S. source, a spokesman says. Another national chain, Bennigan's, already features American-produced product. The EU ban could boost consumption of U.S. pork at home as well as increase export sales.

Baby back ribs typically are four inches long, about two inches shorter than the standard pork rib, because the hogs are smaller when slaughtered.

The Bush administration justified extending the import ban to all 15 members of the European Union by citing the extensive free trade among the countries. EU officials contend border controls between the countries prevent the disease from spreading. The recent outbreak in The Netherlands may force EU officials to re-evaluate their stance on the subject.

The Associated Press contributed to this story