Opposition to Brazilian beef imports grows

Jan Shepel
By mid-July, U.S. beef producers will have broader access to Chinese markets, while America will move forward on allowing the import of cooked poultry from China, according to a joint statement announcing the deal.

MADISON - As the Brazilian beef scandal plays out, several U.S. lawmakers have introduced a bill to impose a 120-day ban on imports of Brazilian beef, and some groups are pushing for a return of country-of-origin labeling of meat. The meatpacker corruption and health inspection scandal that rocked Brazil’s meat processing and export sector has resulted in beef and poultry bans from many import nations.

Brazil’s federal police spent two years investigating their nation’s huge beef and poultry packing sector and found widespread corruption leading to unsafe products allegedly being processed, sold and in some cases sent out of the country to export markets. Though U.S. health and agriculture officials have said there is no danger from Brazilian beef being shipped here, some lawmakers and cattle ranchers beg to differ.

The new measure was introduced by Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) who was joined by Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a member of the North Dakota Democratic-Nonpartisan League party and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.)

Tester, a third-generation farmer himself, was among those who criticized the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s decision several years ago to allow Brazilian imports to come into American markets in the first place, because the country still has outbreaks of foot and mouth disease in certain regions. In 2015 he succeeded in blocking imports of Brazilian beef from the regions of that country where foot and mouth disease is endemic.

His new bill would ban Brazilian beef from U.S. markets for 120 days, giving the USDA and its Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) time to investigate food safety threats and figure out which Brazilian beef sources put U.S. consumers at risk as Brazil and several of its giant packing companies move on from the investigation.

Brazil, which has made a strategic move to become a huge player in the global meat industry, has nearly 5,000 meat processing plants and 2,300 health inspectors working on meat inspection. Brazil’s meat export business is reportedly worth $14 billion.

“We must take decisive action to ensure no family anywhere in this country is exposed to the danger of deceptive Brazilian beef processors,” Tester said in introducing the bill. “We cannot allow harmful food to come into our markets and endanger our families.”

Heitkamp agreed. “Allowing unsafe beef into the country endangers consumers and the reputation of U.S. beef producers whose meat is sold next to imported meat, now without mandatory country-of-origin labeling,” wrote Sen. Heitkamp in a letter to President Donald Trump.

Trump’s incoming Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue – the last to be appointed and the last to have a confirmation hearing – warned Senators that U.S. agriculture could face Brazilian trade retaliation if we halted beef imports.

U.S. Agriculture Department officials have said that no beef from the plants that are being investigated in Brazil has hit U.S. markets.

Health officials in the United States say they have stepped up pathogen testing of all beef from Brazil. The USDA and FSIS announced a plan to increase the inspection of Brazilian beef imports and will now inspect 100 percent of Brazilian product at ports of entry.

Federal officials say that Brazilian beef would be labeled as such if sold to consumers in the original container but not if it was repackaged or reprocessed – and most of it is. Several cattle producers’ groups said that is not good enough. They are urging members of their Congressional delegations to support Tester’s bill and are pushing for a return of country-of-origin (COOL) labeling for meat.

Among those is R-CALF USA, a Montana-based cattle group that has long been a backer of COOL. In a public We the People petition launched on April 13, R-CALF USA seeks 100,000 signatures during the next 30 days to call on the Trump Administration to ban imports of Brazilian beef until all beef sold in U.S. supermarkets is labeled with its country of origin.

The petition points out that many beef-importing nations took the precaution of placing bans on Brazilian beef after federal police there raided beef plants and their investigation became worldwide news. The Brazilian beef and poultry packers allegedly tried to cover up spoiled meat with chemicals, and added illegal substances to sausages, selling that product to schools and to the public as well as export markets. As concern over Brazilian beef grew, health officials in some countries began testing for pathogens. Some samples tested positive for salmonella.

The United States, however, which is the world's largest beef consumer, did not take the precaution of banning Brazilian imports, which makes R-CALF USA CEO Bill Bullard angry.

He explained that when Congress repealed COOL, it didn’t just eliminate origin labels on beef from the United States, Mexico and Canada. That repeal also eliminated the requirement that imported beef products be labeled through retail sale -- which means all the way to the actual consumer that purchases the beef.

“So, today, an unlabeled package of Brazilian T-bone steaks can be offered alongside an unlabeled package of U.S. T-bone steaks and both packages will bear an official U.S. inspection sticker. Consumers won't have a clue as to which of those steaks was produced by the American rancher,” Bullard said.

“So, today, an unlabeled package of Brazilian T-bone steaks can be offered alongside an unlabeled package of U.S. T-bone steaks and both packages will bear an official U.S. inspection sticker. Consumers won't have a clue as to which of those steaks was produced by the American rancher,” R-CALF CEO Bill Bullard said.

His group’s petition calls for a ban on what they called the “unsafe” beef imports from Brazil until American consumers can begin differentiating Brazilian beef from American beef with a country-of-origin label.

The group states on its petition request, “We are American ranchers. We produce the safest, best beef in the world and we are going out of business at an alarming rate. More than 200,000 of us have lost our family ranches since 1990 because global ‘fat cat’ meatpackers lobbying Congress to stop our American beef from being labeled.”

Their petition can be accessed at www.BanBrazilianBeef.com.