On Feb. 21, 2020, USDA announced that Brazil will once again be allowed to export fresh beef to the United States. This announcement came as a shock to beef producers across the county as word of the ruling rippled across news and social media platforms.
This is not the first time the U.S. has tried to import fresh beef from Brazil. In fact, just four short years ago, in 2016, USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) determined that Brazil’s food safety standards regarding meat were equivalent to that of the United States’ and therefore fresh beef was safe to import from the county.
U.S. beef producers were leery of the agreement at the time. For starters, Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD), a highly contagious, viral disease that has been eradicated from U.S. livestock since 1929, runs rampant in Brazil, as well as its neighboring countries. Under the right conditions, the virus can be housed in contaminated tissue for an extended period of time, and although a very small risk, FMD is a zoonotic disease, meaning it can be transferred from animals to humans.
Despite reservations, Brazil went right to work shipping beef to the U.S., but it only took six months for any confidence in their food safety standards to be totally squelched. During that period, FSIS refused entry to 11 percent of Brazil’s shipments or roughly 1.9 million pounds. FSIS sighted public and animal health concerns, as well as sanitary issues, as the reason those shipments were refused. In contrast, FSIS refuses entry to 1 percent of shipments from other countries on average.
Shortly after the U.S. banned the importation of fresh Brazilian beef in 2017, Brazil’s beef industry fell under heavy scrutiny. Investigations found several meat packing facilities in the country had been bribing health inspectors to allow the shipment of contaminated meat.
USDA launched their own audit of Brazil’s meat inspection system and recently decided that in the 20 months since the U.S. banned their beef, Brazil had fixed their problems and FSIS once again believes their meat can be safely imported, but U.S. beef producers aren’t so sure.
“We don’t really know what has changed as far as their procedures go. Are we going to end up right back where we were when it didn’t work,” asked Fred Wacker, beef producer and president of the Montana Stockgrower’s Association (MSGA).
Wacker emphasized that the MSGA is very much in support of free trade. He went on to explain that U.S. consumers have a hankering for hamburger, and quite frankly, U.S. supply cannot keep up with that specified demand. Further, if the U.S. wants countries to open up their boarders, the U.S. must reciprocate.
“We want markets around the world open to our product and we know we can’t make it a one-sided deal,” he said.
Even so, reservations about Brazil’s food safety standards have once again left U.S. beef producers on the defense. Trade may be good, but food safety, as well as human and animal health, is of the upmost importance. Leadership organizations within the beef industry stepped up to voice concerns over USDA’s announcement almost immediately. In addition to MSGA and their parent organization, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), R-CALF USA, has also issued a statement in opposition.
“We’ve got to keep the beef industry united so we can all get together and collectively have a voice in saying we cannot import beef that could cause a problem to our entire industry,” Wacker stated.
Organizations within the U.S. beef industry have long had differing opinions on a wide range of issues, but in this instance the industry seems completely unified and is geared to take action. The ruling is still very new, but consensus is to approach this issue from the top down, starting with the U.S. Congress.
Montana Senator Jon Tester has spoke out in strong opposition, and in the past he created legislation to halt the importation of Brazilian beef. Building off of the momentum created by Tester, beef organizations hope to garner more support so the situation can be effectively rectified.
“We need to get a strong coalition of people on both sides of the aisle and we need to get some stringent rules in place,” Wacker said.
During their 2019 annual convention, MSGA revised policy they had in place regarding the importation of fresh/frozen beef so that it more clearly defines why the organization stands so staunchly against the importing of Brazilian beef at this time. Below is their stance:
“MSGA opposes the importation of fresh and/or frozen beef products into the United States from Brazil and any other beef exporting countries that have reported FMD or BSE cases, until concerns of disease control and eradication can be resolved and foreign officials can be proven capable of meeting and successfully carrying out U.S. food safety standards to prevent the spread of zoonotic and livestock diseases.”
Wacker concluded by saying, as it stands right now, importing beef from Brazil is simply not worth the risk it poses to the entire U.S. beef industry and its consumers.