BBC Home
Explore the BBC
BBC News
Launch consoleBBC NEWS CHANNEL
Last Updated: Tuesday, 18 October 2005, 08:32 GMT 09:32 UK
Why was UK's Katrina aid rejected by US?
The Magazine answers...

Rice and curried lamb
Each pack contains 4,000 calories
The US has blocked the distribution of 357,000 British ration packs sent out to help survivors of Hurricane Katrina, amid fears they are infected with mad cow disease. So what happened?

In total 475,000 food packs, some of which were vegetarian, left RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire on 5 September after a request for help from the US authorities.

The high-calorie meals, which are routinely consumed by British soldiers, arrived by plane in Arkansas and were shipped 355 miles to New Orleans. By this time, food inspectors had become aware the packets may need to be checked, but they could not get to all the distribution points because of flooding.

They intercepted 357,000 of the packs and stopped them going any further because they were deemed to contravene the ban which has been in place since the BSE crisis. Today these meals remain stored in a warehouse, at a cost of $16,000 a month, while the US tries to find a suitable foreign recipient.

Pack contents

It says the emergency need had receded anyway, and the decision was taken in the belief that no-one would go hungry as a result. An additional 33,000 meals from Germany, Russia, Spain and France suffered the same fate, due to US legal restrictions.

The British aid is reported to have cost taxpayers nearly 2.7m, but the official response from the Army is diplomatic.

Brian Sheehan of the Defence Logistics Organisation says: "We've been aware of this for a while. Britain's position is that the US approached us for aid at the time and we were glad to provide it.

"We don't believe there are any problems with the meals. The issues about use are for the Americans. We have total confidence in our ration packs."


It's not the first time this kind of thing has happened, says Dr Oliver Morrissey, a professor in development economics at Nottingham University. Some African countries such as Angola refused to distribute GM maize sent as aid from the US, because they feared its impact on human health.

"It's a type of issue which can arise," he says. "Usually the context would be that the importing country has a particular set of regulations on food and usually they would impose those regardless of the presence of an emergency.

Question Mark - from original architect's doodle design for BBC TV Centre
A regular part of the BBC News Magazine, Who, What, Why? aims to answer some of the questions behind the headlines

"They could exercise discretion if they wanted but they may feel these things are banned for a reason and, in the case of Hurricane Katrina, the media could pick up on them and say 'We are giving food to hurricane victims we don't pass fit to eat ourselves.'

"So they could get caught either way. You can imagine in the US there are groups of media who would pick up on that."

But US newspapers used the story to lambaste the government anyway, adding it to a list of criticisms claiming its general response was inefficient and incompetent. The British rations story was a "tale of good intentions colliding with a cumbersome bureaucracy", according to the Washington Post.

But while some may consider this to be red tape in the extreme, there may have been some mitigating circumstances which could partly explain how the banned meat got through, says Dr Morrissey.

When food is delivered for emergency relief, it probably does not go through the normal trading channels so the checks may lack the usual rigour, he says. And ready-made meals would not have prompted the same suspicion as meat.

Got a question about the news? Maybe Who, What, Why? can help! If there is anything you would like answering, tell us using the form below.

Your e-mail address
Your question

The BBC may edit your comments and not all emails will be published. Your comments may be published on any BBC media worldwide.

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific