Import Inquiry: National cattle organizations have concerns over Argentina beef, foot-and-mouth disease | TSLN.com

Import Inquiry: National cattle organizations have concerns over Argentina beef, foot-and-mouth disease

The questions are many and the answers are few when it comes to global trade. This is particularly true when dealing with beef and cattle, and the questions become more elevated and acute when foot and mouth disease is mentioned.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service announced last week a proposal to allow the importation of fresh – chilled or frozen – beef from northern Argentina.

"APHIS cannot recognize this region as free of FMD. However, APHIS can evaluate the risk presented by fresh/frozen beef products imported under specific conditions. The proposed rule to allow…beef from northern Argentina is based on this type of analysis," said the official news release.

Three national cattle organizations, U.S. Cattlemen's Association, National Cattlemen's Beef Association and Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund – United Stockgrowers of America voiced opposition to the APHIS proposal. R-CALF USA references past foot and mouth disease cover-up efforts by the Argentine government. "We strongly disagree with the assertion made by APHIS Deputy Administrator John Clifford that we don't need to worry about Argentina's past efforts to hide its outbreaks because Argentina supposedly learned its lesson after we finally closed the border and because the people in the Argentina government that hid the outbreaks are no longer there. The U.S. cattle industry deserves far more protection against a known problem than this," said the organization's CEO Bill Bullard.

According to an APHIS factsheet, "Foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) is a severe, highly contagious viral disease. The FMD virus causes illness in cows, pigs, sheep, goats, deer, and other animals with divided hooves. FMD is a worldwide concern, as it can spread quickly and cause significant economic losses. While many countries across the globe are dealing with FMD in their livestock populations, the United States eradicated the disease here in 1929." The fact sheet goes on to say, "In carrying out our safeguarding mission, the USDA APHIS works to ensure the continued health of our nation's livestock. These efforts include preventing FMD from reentering the country."

USCA President Jon Wooster is also concerned. "The history of FMD in South America is evident as is the collective inability of South American nations to eradicate FMD due to the endemic nature of the disease. According to a study funded by the Pork Checkoff, the estimated lost revenue to the pork and beef industries resulting from the introduction of FMD in the U.S. would average $12.9 billion per year and over a 10 year period showed cumulative losses of $199 billion, including $71.23 billion for beef and $57 billion for pork.”

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"It is going to be hard to say right, wrong or indifferent but I believe an extra dose of clarity needs to be applied to the proposal," said Ty Littau of Rapid City, S.D.

Littau grew up on a registered Angus operation in the south central part of South Dakota and maintains a vested interest in the family ranch. For six months last fall and winter, Littau worked for a group of independent producers in Argentina that raised cattle, sheep, hogs and grains.

The Argentine government, led by President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, is not actively promoting the exportation of ag products, Littau said. "This current government does not have a history of being pro-trade. They believe in keeping the domestic food supply affordable for the Argentine people and they've set up their policies to try and do that, whether it is high taxes, production quotas or other methods. They've all but closed themselves off from global trade," he explained.

Like the U.S., Argentina's cattle numbers are shrinking, Littau said.

Government unrest and a lack of stability in the fed cattle market leads Argentine feeders to rush cattle through the feedlot as quickly as possible to limit their exposure to financial risk, Littau said.

This feeding model often results in 800 pound animals being sent to slaughter, a sharp contrast to the traditional slaughter steer in the U.S. that could weigh twice that.

Producers and feeders attempting to access an export market might feed cattle longer, hoping to provide the larger carcass sizes and weights U.S. and European consumers expect.

But policies in Argentina tend to squelch these export efforts. "For example, they might have a law that for every steer you feed for export, you have to feed two or two and-a-half for domestic consumption." Littau said this kind of requirement – feeding cattle longer than normal – presents more risk than many feeders are willing to take, knowing the economy is unstable enough they are likely to be unable to recover feed costs and other expenses.

Feedlot managers also shy away from preventative health measures, concerned that the potential profit margin will not justify the cost.

The operation that employed Littau had previously accessed foreign markets but under the current administration had given up on exporting.

Importing Argentinian beef is not a new concept according to R-CALF USA. Bullard shares some history:

"In August 1997, APHIS engaged in a high-risk scheme to begin importation of fresh (chilled or frozen) beef from Argentina, even though Argentina was still carrying out vaccination for FMD. APHIS claimed at the time that this 'exemplified the opportunity' to regionalize countries with ongoing FMD problems," Bullard explained.

APHIS implemented a regionalization plan for Argentina, prohibiting the importation of beef from animals that had been in specified areas along Argentina's border with Uruguay. In August 2000, just days before the effective date of APHIS' regionalization rule, Argentina confirmed a new outbreak of FMD, he explained. "Nevertheless, APHIS concluded the U.S. could continue to safely import fresh – chilled or frozen – beef from Argentina under its regionalization scheme." For nearly a year after its 2000 outbreak, Argentina remained eligible to export fresh beef to the United States. "Then APHIS was forced to take emergency, retroactive action in June 2001 to protect U.S. livestock from the introduction of FMD from Argentina because at that time APHIS believed the FMD virus already was present in Argentina for several weeks before Argentina finally reported the first of many new and widespread FMD outbreaks beginning in March 2001. APHIS' regionalization scheme could have resulted in the introduction of FMD into the U.S.," Bullard said.

Littau points out that the northern part of Argentina is akin to southern U.S., with similar cattle types.

"As you go south, you get colder. Those cattle have less disease and the disease is more seasonal," Littau said the northern cattle are more likely to be "eared" cattle, not the british breeds found along the western and southern part of the country.

Littau said he has concerns about the health and safety of the U.S. cow herd, although he did not see any cattle infected with foot and mouth disease during his travels down south.

In 2009 Senators Johnson and Enzi introduced the Foot-and-Mouth Dis ease Protection Act that would have prohibited the importation of fresh ruminant meat from Argentina until the Agriculture Secretary certifies to Congress that every region of Argentina is free of foot and mouth disease without vaccination. "The introduction of this important legislation was enough to cause APHIS to cease and desist from moving forward with its earlier rule to resume trade in fresh meat with Argentina," Bullard said, adding that his group is working to introduce similar legislation that would address meat products from both Argentina and Brazil.

"If the idea is to foster better trade relations, is there a better commodity or item we could use? There aren't many commodities more fragile than animal protein and in particular beef," Littau said.

One reason he chose to spend half a year in Argentina was to gain a working understanding of a foreign cattle industry. "There are too many 'experts' that spend a week in a country and then think they can tell you the story about the industry there."

In general, Littau supports international trade and said that U.S. independent cattle producers have no reason to fear the open market "as long as we are on a level playing field.

"My personal belief is that one of the things that keeps us safe and secure as a nation is our food supply. We have a strong military and ag industry." Compromising that security is worrisome, he said, and poses the question of whether the potential cost of foot and mouth disease in the U.S. cowherd would outweigh the profit potential for importers.

Editor's note: APHIS did not respond to our request for an interview.