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By Robert Keith-Reid

PORT VILA, Vanuatu (July 17, 2000 - Islands Business Magazine/PINA Nius Online)---Janette James and her boss, Robert Bohn, have strong views about a cut of Vanuatu beefsteak. Once you've had one you'll curl your lip over anything else, they assert.

Since James, from New Zealand's Waikato district, is general manager of Vanuatu Abattoirs Ltd., and Bohn is the company's chairman and owner of 6,000 head of cattle on a spread 50 kilometers (30 miles) out of Port Vila, their verdict is flavored by a certain prejudice.

But a lot of other people chorus in praise of Vanuatu's beef. Up at Santo a company run by a Japanese company has exported beef to the fussy Japanese market for years.

Vanuatu's climate is about as perfect for beef as you can get, is the verdict of veterinarians. "It's natural beef, great soil, no ticks, no chemical fertilizers and pasture and water availability means that animals are never really stressed and that is what makes good beef," Bohn said. In other words a cut of prime Vanuatu beef is about as "organic" as food purists can rate a chunk of beef without being so perfect as to arouse a tinge of suspicion.

Vanuatu is definitely free of mad cow disease, as the country's Livestock Department assured Japanese inquirers recently.

Indeed, Vanuatu is now certified by the animal equivalent of the World Health Organization as one of the world's few truly animal disease-free countries and it intends to remain so.

This accolade is an important plus for the Vanuatu beef industry's effort to break into international markets. In May, the abattoir company was expecting a favorable audit of its plant from Australia, thus opening a door to just about all the meat it can supply. New Zealand is another developing prospect.

Beef is Vanuatu's second export after copra, with 1,200 to 1,600 tons a year being exported for earnings of around US$ 4 million a year.

Prices: It is exported in small amounts to Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, New Caledonia, Kiribati, Wallis and Futuna and sometimes Fiji. A fast-growing business is sales of 20-kilogram (44-pound) packages to visitors from New Zealand. According to Bohn, Australia is now lined up to take everything the abattoir can supply because Australia ships its best quality beef to export markets and directs second-grade stuff to the domestic market for prices that, he said, Vanuatu can undercut.

But if Vanuatu's beef is so great, why isn't the industry far bigger than it is? Well, there are obstacles, Bohn said. For one, the government, which is the majority owner of the company, hasn't given it serious backing from the day it opened. Frequent changes of board members influenced by political considerations impede a steady line of direction.

There's always been a problem with shipping cattle from other islands to Port Vila, although at last that is being solved with the acquisition of the company's own carrier. There are times when Australian producers dump their prime stuff on Vanuatu's markets and there is resistance from them to the landing of Vanuatu's meat on their home turf. Then there are international shipping uncertainties which at times forcing the trans-shipment of Vanuatu's beef at costs that render it uncompetitive. Nevertheless, said James, who has a background of the New Zealand meat business, the abattoir has been steadily improved to a standard that qualifies it to make a serious stab for a much more custom from Australia and New Zealand.

And so? "We need more cattle," Bohn explained. "There are about 160,000 in the country. But we need to double that number to supply the people we have waiting for our beef."

Bohn, whose son, Robert, is chairman of Vanuatu's financial center association, has been one of Vanuatu's cattlemen for 30 years. He's from Utah and is proud of his family association tracing back to Tonga. He once flew air force transport and flight refueling aircraft, which was how he first discovered the South Pacific, and later moved into the construction business.

"When I started here we did not have enough beef to take care of the local market. We were importing it," he said. "Now everyone in Vanuatu eats local beef." The trouble is there still isn't enough of if. Not for the locals or all those avidly organically inclined beefeaters abroad.

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