Trade Groups, Farmers Spar Over Beef Ban
Washington — Bob Wilts was 10 years old when the Big Lake, Minn., farm where he grew up got its first beef cow. Fast forward 45 years to today, and Wilts still lives in Big Lake, about 35 miles northwest of Minneapolis. He still raises cattle.
Wilts and his wife, Judy, manage about 30 steers that they sell to individual families and stockyards annually. But Wilts and other ranchers worry about something that they say could threaten their livelihoods and the integrity of the U.S. beef market.
At the end of June, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that it was lifting bans on chilled or frozen beef from Argentina and 14 Brazilian states for the first time since 2001, when foot-and-mouth disease was detected among cattle in those South American countries.
“Beef is high,” Wilts said of prices in the U.S. “I know that. You go to the store and meat is expensive. But the cow herds are coming back. To risk bringing in a disease that could basically start wiping out everything … to me, it’s not worth the risk to save a few bucks.”
Where ranchers see a problem, trade experts see a product that is safe and a ban that has been in place for far too long. The USDA says the areas approved for trading have been disease free since 2007.
Despite concerns like Wilts’, the World Trade Organization handed Argentina a win on July 24 in a ruling that stated the U.S. continuing to ban imports of beef was unlawful and an act of protectionism.
Bill Watson, a trade policy analyst at the Cato Institute, said he doesn’t see a reason to be concerned about beef safety. “The reason the ban is being lifted is because it’s safe,” Watson said.
“The (WTO) decision was that the ban itself is protectionist. It’s not designed to deal with an actual safety problem, but just to keep prices up and protect producers from competition.”
Protectionist policies drive up prices, Watson said. “If it’s a question of food safety then there might be a justification,” he said. “But if it’s just to keep prices high, then that’s not helping American consumers at all.”
Nevertheless, renewing Argentine and Brazilian beef imports has drawn the ire of the nation’s powerful farmers’ lobby, and politicians have paid heed. Only a few days after the USDA announced the lifted ban, the Senate appropriations committee passed a bill to delay funding for reinstating Brazilian and Argentine beef sales until the Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack jumps through a new set of time-consuming regulatory hoops. In mid-July, a House Appropriations Agriculture Subcommittee amendment to an agriculture appropriations bill contained similar language.
The White House found this delaying tactic so offensive that Shaun Donovan, director of the Office of Management and Budget, recently wrote to Senate appropriators to complain.
According to the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, foot-and-mouth disease — sometimes called hoof-and-mouth disease — is a “severe, highly contagious viral disease” that can be passed between animals. Although the disease is not usually fatal, USDA says animals affected are not likely to produce milk or meat the way they did before being infected.
The disease has been eradicated from the United States since 1929, but has been present in more recent years in animals throughout Africa, South America, Asia and some areas in Europe, according to the USDA.
Doug Peterson, president of the Minnesota Farmers Union, raises the example of the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in England in 2001 as a point of concern. Peterson doesn’t buy the claims that Argentine and Brazilian beef is safe. There are, he said, “no standards or protocol that can ensure these are a disease free product.”
“You spend all the money on developing a brand, an American-branded beef, then you allow countries with a history of hoof-and-mouth disease to import?” Peterson asked. “It’s just a matter of watering down the market and some large corporation making the money, not the farmer.”