Capitol Hill says ‘whoa’ to South American beef | TSLN.com

Capitol Hill says ‘whoa’ to South American beef

Beef derived from cattle on the other side of the equator might take longer to arrive in the U.S. than originally thought.

The Senate appropriations committee, June 16 approved a spending bill that included a provision to ban Argentinian and Brazilian fresh or frozen beef until certain conditions are met.

The appropriations committee on the House side approved a similar amendment the week prior.

The actions came in response to the late June announcement that U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service's (USDA APHIS's) rule to allow Brazilian and Argentinian fresh and frozen beef into the U.S. had been approved.

“We view this as a tentative, stop-gap measure to give us time to build support for legislation that would prevent USDA from recklessly exposing our livestock to an unnecessary and avoidable risk of introducing FMD.Bill Bullard, CEO of Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund

— United Stockgrowers of America

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Both the house and senate will now take up their perspective appropriations bills, then a joint House and Senate committee will work out a final compromise. For the past few years, that process has not led to final passage and a signature from the President. Instead Congress has funded the federal government via a continuation of the existing spending levels and no new appropriations language is implemented. Even if that route is taken, there is a small window for riders like this to be implemented.

Cattle and beef groups that are often on opposite sides of trade discussions agree that USDA APHIS's rule is irresponsible.

"We don't see this as a trade issue. We see it as an animal health issue," said National Cattlemen's Beef Association executive director of legislative affairs Kristina Butts. No amount of trade is worth jeopardizing the domestic cattle herd, she said.

"We feel very strongly APHIS didn't use the same process to evaluate the risk as they did with Uruguay in 2003.

Butts said a quantitative assessment, like was done before approval of Uruguayan beef imports, is data-driven data and objective.

"A qualitative assessment is more subjective," she explained.

NCBA would consider supporting the move if the more detailed review is done by APHIS, along with on-site visits, followed by a report to congress.

The House appropriations language requires that no funds be expended to implement the final rule until those very conditions are met.

The Senate version calls for the secretary to conduct updated comprehensive risk evaluation, to update a 2003 report to Congress as it relates to economic impacts associated with potential introduction of FMD, and to report to Congress specific steps to implement recommendations of the May 2015 GEO report on federal veterinarians and workforce needs for emergency response to an animal disease outbreak.

Bill Bullard, CEO of Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund – United Stockgrowers of America, an organization typically hesitant to support free trade measures, lauds the bipartisan support for the amendments on both houses of Congress, but doesn't see them as a long-term solution.

"We view this as a tentative, stop-gap measure to give us time to build support for legislation that would prevent USDA from recklessly exposing our livestock to an unnecessary and avoidable risk of introducing FMD," he said.

United States Cattlemen Association executive director Jess Peterson said there is no way of knowing whether or not the appropriations packages will be finalized and approved with the ban language. Regardless of the final outcome of the spending bills, he believes the obvious apprehension shown by congress and the livestock industry will be enough to create uncertainty in the minds of the South American traders and cause them to think twice before investing in the infrastructure required to export beef to the U.S.

"Just because a ban or limitation gets lifted, doesn't mean that companies will immediately begin taking advantage of it. Just like the horse processing issue." Peterson said that on a volatile issue – that could be approved or banned depending on the directions the political wind blows – Brazil and Argentinian meat packers may choose the wait-and-see approach for a year or two.

USCA's Chuck Kiker, who presented details on this topic to members of congress a year ago, said that the U.S. government is too trusting of foreign countries. "Here we are trusting them to follow protocols and rules and regulations, just like we trusted Canada with BSE. We are exposing the entire U.S. herd to FMD by doing business with nations who haven't built the trust they need to build."

In order to show that the U.S. is a leader in global trade, the administration enters trade deals to sell computers and other high tech equipment and accepts ag products from foreign countries in return, Kiker said. But the disease risk is overwhelming in this case, Kiker said.

"As our government cuts way back are we going to have people there to say they are following protocols?"

While Argentinian and Brazilian cattle are mostly grassfed, and they likely won't compete with U.S. cornfed beef in higher-end restaurants and meat markets, it won't stay that way, Kiker says. "When they start getting the quality of meat that is coming out of our feedlots, they will compete with us head to head. I don't think it will happen overnight but five or 10 years from now when we are getting $1.50 for our calves and it is costing $1.75 to raise them that is when you are going to start seeing ag hurting again."

In a news release, R-CALF USA said "Vilsack stated in both proposed rules that he expected the increased imports of fresh beef associated with the two rules to reduce producer welfare, lower U.S. beef prices, and lower U.S. beef production. He did not provide any other reason for his decision to relax longstanding FMD restrictions from the two countries."

The inability of consumers to distinguish between U.S., Brazilian and Argentinian beef will also be a problem, Kiker said.

"If the packers can repeal country of origin labeling like they are trying to do, then all beef that goes through a U.S. packing plant is considered U.S. beef. It is my country's label and everyone gets it. All the things we've done to make U.S. beef the best in the world is being cashed in by packers – if they bring in South American beef and put it through their plants and ship it to China, it gets a U.S. label. That is wrong. Consumers all over the world deserve a truthful label."

"Foot-and-mouth disease (FMD), one of the most contagious diseases known to infect cattle, is endemic in northern Brazil and the Secretary admits in his proposal for Argentina that the active FMD virus appears to be present in niches or patches in the country," said an R-CALF USA news release.

Brazilian and Argentinian plants must be approved by USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service in order to export raw, fresh beef to the U.S. None are approved at this time, Bullard said.

The two rules, both categorized by the White House as "economically significant," permit chilled or frozen, fresh beef imports from select regions. In Brazil, beef may be exported from Bahia, Distrito Federal, Espirito Santo, Goias, Mato Grosso, Mato Grosso do Sul, Minas Gerais, Parana, Rio Grande do Sul, Rio de Janeiro, Rondonia, Sao Paulo, Sergipe, and Tocantis.

Imports from Argentina will come from northern parts of the country, described officially as the "north of Patagonia South and Patagonia North B, referred to as Northern Argentina.".