U.S. opens to Brazilian beef, Capitol Hill concerned about viability of domestic industry
Large animal veterinarian Dr. Ed Hamer said the U.S. importing fresh beef from Brazil is “the craziest thing I’ve ever heard of.”
The southern California large animal veterinarian believes the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s announcement Aug. 1, that the Food Safety and Inspection Service approved Brazil to ship fresh beef to the U.S. will put the domestic livestock herd at risk of contracting the highly contagious Foot and Mouth Disease. FMD can infect any cloven-footed animal. While animals usually survive the disease, their productivity is usually greatly diminished.
Mitigation plans often call for euthanization of all wild and domestic cloven-footed animals within a particular radius and even burning porous materials like wooden corrals or barns on affected locations.
“…FSIS also recently determined that Brazil’s food safety system governing meat products remains equivalent to that of the United States and that fresh (chilled or frozen) beef can be safely imported from Brazil,” the USDA news release stated.
The news makes Dr. Hamer squirm.
While federally inspected U.S. meat plants must keep an inspector on-site every processing day and conduct multiple disease tests, Dr. Hamer doesn’t believe Brazilian plants will follow such strict protocol.
“You are dealing with apples and oranges. Brazil is a third world country,” he said. “If there isn’t a (USDA) inspector standing there, they aren’t held to the same standard (as U.S. producers and processors).”
While the bulk of his business is horses, the Los Olivos, Calif., veterinarian works on cattle occasionally, and grew up on a Nevada cattle ranch.
“The beef industry is important to me and my family,” he said.
Subjecting the industry to unnecessary exposure to meat that could be tainted with the Foot and Mouth Disease is “asinine,” Dr. Hamer said.
The last FMD outbreak on U.S. soil took place in California in 1929. Pigs ate garbage offloaded by a cruise ship that that stopped on the coast. Something in the garbage contained the FMD virus, which infected the pigs.
California state veterinarian Dr. Annette Jones said foreign garbage is now “highly regulated” and must follow protocol including heat treatment before being left on U.S. soil. She said California now maintains strong disease prevention protocol, which should keep her her state’s ag industry as safe as any other.
While she does fear FMD introduction, Dr. Jones doesn’t think Brazilian beef is the mostly likely vector for the disease.
“I worry much more about illegal product movement with travelers or intentional introduction of the virus,” she said.
South Dakota state veterinarian Dr. Dustin Oedekoven agrees.
“International travel, and the number of people in the air moving from all over the globe, is astounding. The traveling public and imported products that are not inspected with respect to potential ag threats are my biggest concerns for the introduction of FMD in the U.S.”
Oedekoven added that Rio de Janeiro, Brazil is recognized as FMD free, so the risk of an Olympian or attendee bringing the disease back to the U.S. is no greater than if the Olympics were held elsewhere.
To foster good global trade relations, Jones believes science-based trade protocols should be followed in all cases, so that, for example, if the U.S. were affected by FMD, exports of unaffected products would still continue.
“I understand the potential devastation caused by FMD, but feel we should not contribute to the ‘manufactured devastation’ created by fear and market closures, rather than science-based disease control measures,” Jones said.
But Capitol Hill is more worried about the viability of the domestic livestock industry.
Sen. John Tester, D., Mont., agreed about the devastating affects of FMD.
Sen. John Thune R., S.D. said cattle producers in his state have contacted him with concerns about imports of Brazilian meat.
“USDA needs to assure me and our nation’s cattle producers that our livestock and food supply will not be jeopardized by an influx of Brazilian beef imports,” he said.
Oedekoven said his state’s Animal Industry Board opposed USDA’s 2014 proposal to allow fresh Brazilian beef imports because of FMD concerns, but that the region of Brazil that is approved for export took care of FMD panic through vaccination.
Oedekoven said he prefers to see the U.S. maintain its historical protocol of only accepting beef from FMD-free countries without vaccination, but he realizes that trade policies are becoming more liberal and understands that policy requires that beef shipments will be halted if FMD is detected.
“It is highly unlikely, in my opinion, that if each step of the protocol is followed and enforced, that live FMD virus would be transported in fresh or frozen beef from a region recognized as ‘FMD free with vaccination’ and that the virus would then somehow come into contact with US livestock,” Oedekoven said. He emphasized, “if each step of the protocol is followed and enforced.”
But R-CALF USA president Bryan Hanson says therein lies the problem.
“It took Brazil two years to notify us that they had a positive BSE case. That shows me that what they say they are going to do and what they are actually going to do are not the same,” said Hanson, the owner of Ft. Pierre Livestock Auction of central South Dakota.
Another of Hanson’s biggest concerns is movement of cattle in South America. Cattle from regions and countries that are not approved for export may find their way to the approved plants, he said.
Hanson said the FMD vaccine used regularly in Brazil can produce a false positive in an FMD test, making health assessment difficult.
Leo McDonnell, Director Emeritus, U.S. Cattlemen’s Association, is worried about compliance and integrity in regard to Brazil’s meat packing industry.
National Cattlemen’s Beef Association President Tracy Brunner, a Kansas cattle feeder said his group is still awaiting a Government Accountability Office investigation into FSIS’s methodology used to determine Brazil’s meat plants are safe.
Additionally NCBA calls for the production of large amounts of FMD vaccine.
“Foot and mouth disease would be absolutely devastating to California,” said Jones, who said California is better prepared for a disease outbreak than many states. “While we rank high in beef and sheep production, we are by far the number one supplier of dairy products in the nation, supplying about 22 percent of the nation’s milk.”
Hanson said a cloven footed animal would have to ingest FMD-carrying meat in order for the imported meat to infect a U.S. animal. The most likely scenario would be infected meat being fed to pigs, he said. But the affects of one sick hog would be catastrophic.
“Even if one got gets it, the protocol is the same — it shuts down commerce and all of the sudden we are an FMD country,” he said. Exports would likely be restricted, along with movement of any number of products in the United States.
Aside from the disease concerns, opening U.S. borders to a country with huge cattle numbers is unwise for the U.S. cattle market, said Hamer.
“FMD is a huge concern but so are other things like hormones, trace minerals, high levels of antibiotics,” he said.
Hamer pointed out that Brazilian meat is likely to show up in fast food joints, hot dogs and other inexpensive meat sources.
“Any sane person realizes when you outsource food to a third world country, it affects the people looking for a cheap way to feed the family. It’s not like all of us can afford to go to ‘Whole Foods’ and buy certified grass-fed beef,” Hamer said.
South Dakota Stockgrowers Vice-President Gary Deering also worries about the U.S. consumer.
“This is exactly why we fought so hard for Country of Origin Labeling,” he said. “As ranchers, we’ve worked hard to build up a strong reputation for safe and affordable U.S. beef. I just can’t understand how USDA FSIS thinks that importing beef from Brazil makes any sense or provides any benefit to the United States’ producers or consumers.”
According to USDA FSIS, annual imports of fresh (chilled or frozen) beef from Brazil will likely range between 20,000 and 65,000 metric tons (MT), with annual volumes averaging 40,000 MT, said the SDSGA news release.
“We’ve spent generations putting this strong cattle industry together and it will take 10 years to completely dismantle it,” Hamer said. “We don’t have a shortage of beef here. We are feeding everyone just fine. We’ve got 100 million people out of work and we are outsourcing jobs that we should be doing here.” ❖