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Brazil Beef Imports Too Risky, Farmers Worry

Luke Runyon
Harvest Public Media

The U.S. Department of Agriculture wants to green light a proposal that would allow imports of fresh beef from certain sections of Brazil, despite the South American country’s history of outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease, a highly contagious pathogen that cripples cattle.

The U.S. hasn’t had an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in more than 80 years. In Brazil, the latest recorded outbreak was in 2006, though it occurred in an area that would not be allowed to export to the U.S. under the proposed rule. Brazil already exports processed and cooked beef to the U.S.

Outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease in other countries have led to mass slaughter of animals and put a kibosh on any beef trade, causing huge economic damage in the billions of dollars.

USDA officials say little risk exists of the disease hitching a ride to the U.S. on packages of meat, citing a 85-page risk analysis [pdf]. But many U.S. ranchers are still wringing their hands.

“We certainly understand the concerns, yes, the concern that we’d be putting the U.S. livestock industry at risk by allowing these imports,” said Gary Colgrove, a director with the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which oversees trade relationships.

“However, we feel that the risk analysis is robust and it’s out there for the public to scrutinize,” Colgrove said.

A foot-and-mouth disease outbreak would be devastating, according to the risk assessment. In fact, the pathogen has such a reputation for causing economic destruction it’s been tossed around as a possible terrorist weapon. But, Colgrove says, all the fear surrounding the Brazilian beef proposal is unwarranted.

Brazil’s Department of Agriculture has proven its ability to contain and control the disease, the USDA maintains. The country has been vaccinating cattle against foot-and-mouth for years. When American inspectors visited Brazil over the past decade, ports were well staffed and a system of permits to keep the disease in check was up to speed. Plus, many say, accepting imports from Brazil could pave the way for U.S. beef exports to the emerging world power.

That’s not enough to convince many American ranchers. Comments on the proposal totaled 618, most of which derided the proposed rule as reckless, irresponsible and unnecessary.

Sharon Harvat and her husband John run their cattle outside Scottsbluff, Neb., in the state’s western panhandle. Their hundreds of heifers calve during the spring, and when all the calves are born, they move them to the mountains in northern Colorado to graze. When news of the beef trade proposal popped up in a trade magazine, Harvat says she felt a pit in her stomach.

“On an operation like ours, where we travel a lot with our cattle, that would probably come to an abrupt halt if there was an outbreak,” Harvat said.

Even though foot-and-mouth disease rarely transmits to humans, it’s contagious in livestock, and spreads rapidly in cloven-hoofed beasts, domesticated or wild.

“I would imagine it would spread like wildfire,” Harvat said. “And then what would that do to the ag economy? It would shut it down.”

Studies that simulated foot-and-mouth outbreaks have shown potential economic damage to be in the billions of dollars in the United States. Quarantines and mass slaughter of cattle are costly. Another big cost would be shattered trade relationships with countries that purchase American beef. A recently rolled out model from Colorado State University researchers shows little is known about how cattle are moved throughout the country, which could stymie efforts to contain a possible outbreak.

“We cannot jeopardize the health of our domestic herd just for the sake of opening a market,” said Colin Woodall with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the country’s biggest beef lobby group. The association hasn’t dismissed the proposal outright, instead is urging the USDA to move slowly. The group has submitted records requests for additional background data used to prepare the proposed rule. That data hasn’t been released, Woodall said.

“We have a lot of friends in Congress who are very interested and concerned about this particular issue and they would probably be more than happy to engage if it got to that point,” Woodall said.

Ranchers are worried about more than just the specter of possible disease. Trade deals like this bring economic consequences too. By now, grill masters have noticed record high beef prices at the grocery store and the USDA says the inclusion of Brazilian beef could bring them down, though probably to a negligible degree.

“We’re very short on ground beef. We will have very high ground beef prices, and you can mitigate that a little bit with Brazilian beef,” said Steve Koontz, an agricultural economist at Colorado State University.

Credit Luke Runyon / Harvest Public Media
Harvest Public Media
Rancher Sharon Harvat worries that importing fresh beef from Brazil could bring foot-and-mouth disease, which could wreak havoc on the U.S. beef trade.

The added beef supply could bring down American grocery store prices, and Koontz says that’s good news for consumers and fast food joints, and bad news for the poultry industry that has seen an influx of consumers as beef prices became tough to swallow.

At the same time, it’s also potentially bad news for ranchers like Sharon Harvat, who could see the price she receives at the sale barn drop too.

“I know there’s a shortage of beef in this country,” Harvat said. “And that’s why the prices are so high. But is that enough to justify our food security?”

The comment period on the USDA proposal closed April 22. A final decision from the USDA on allowing Brazilian beef isn’t expected for months.

Harvest Public Media, based at KCUR, is a collaborative public media project that reports on important agricultural issues in the Midwest. You can read more about the project on their website.

As KUNC’s reporter covering the Colorado River Basin, I dig into stories that show how water issues can both unite and divide communities throughout the Western U.S. I produce feature stories for KUNC and a network of public media stations in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, California and Nevada. I also host KUNC’s live community storytelling events.
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