President Donald Trump says the United States should look into ending trade deal provisions that allow for the imports of live cattle into the country, a remark that will surely catch the attention of North American trading partners.
The comment came as an aside during a press conference to roll out the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program Tuesday at the White House. Trump, flanked by leaders of the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, and administration officials, suggested the administration would look into trade deals that allow for live cattle imports.
“I read yesterday where we take some cattle in from other countries because we have trade deals, I think you should look at terminating those deals,” Trump said as he looked in the direction of Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue. “We have trade deals where we actually take in cattle, and we have a lot of cattle in this country, and I think you should look at the possibility of terminating those trade deals.”
Trump did offer a qualifier, saying that if a country has been an ally to the U.S., “you have to do that, but there are some countries that are sending us cattle for many years and I think we should look at terminating. We’re very self-sufficient.”
Trump pointed the blame at “old trade deals that were made a long time ago,” but almost all of the cattle imported into the United States come from Canada and Mexico, the trading partners in the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement.
In a statement, NCBA CEO Colin Woodall said the comment "demonstrates the complexity of the U.S. beef business." He said live cattle imports only come from Canada and Mexico "and will continue to do so" under the terms of the USMCA deal.
“Beef trade is a complex business, and America’s cattle producers rely on safe and reliable international trading partners, both as a destination for the undervalued cuts we produce here, such as hearts, tongues, and livers, and for importation of lean trim for ground beef production to meet strong consumer demand," Woodall noted, adding that NCBA encourages the administration "to re-examine the decision to reopen the market to imports from Brazil, Namibia, and any other nation where there are food safety or animal health concerns that could impact American consumers or cattle producers."
Earlier this month, another cattle group - the U.S. Cattlemen's Association - asked the Trump administration to get U.S. packers to give preference to U.S. cattle over imported animals. The group has reached out to the Trump administration in writing and personal contact through the White House, according to a source.
“A wartime effort is needed to continue putting American food on American plates during these historic times,” USCA President Brooke Miller said in a May 6 letter to Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue. “To that effect, we ask that the U.S. Department of Agriculture work with meatpackers to ensure preference is given to procuring cattle that have been born and raised in the U.S.”
Beef may be getting harder to buy in grocery stores, but there are more than enough cattle in the U.S., Miller said in the letter.
“The industry is facing nearly five weeks of backlogs and slowdowns, with less than 500,000 federally inspected cattle being slaughtered each week,” the letter reads. “For every week that this occurs, it is estimated that 150,000 to 240,000 cattle will be carried forward … To restore balance in the marketplace, U.S. meatpackers should prioritize slaughtering and processing domestic cattle before imported cattle or beef.”
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The practice of sending cattle to Canadian and Mexican feedyards prior to harvest is commonplace in some parts of the country. According to USDA’s Economic Research Service, the U.S. imported more than 2 million head of live cattle in 2019, with all of the imports coming from Canada and Mexico. In the first three months of 2020, importation figures trended lower; USDA says 567,085 head of cattle came across the northern and southern borders between January and March of 2019, about 6.5% more than the 530,196 head that came into the country in the first three months of this year. Mexico typically makes up about 65% of that volume, with Canada accounting for the other 35%.
The United States typically has an inventory of more than 94 million head of live cattle. According to the U.S. Meat Export Federation, American beef exports topped $8.3 billion in 2018, with Japan, South Korea, Mexico, Hong Kong, and Canada making up the top five export markets.
Asked about the subject by a reporter, Trump said the imports were a “relatively small number,” but questioned why “are we bringing in cattle from other countries when we have so much ourselves?”
“I would say generally speaking, unless this is a country that really has been with us, we shouldn’t be taking their cattle,” he said. “And that’s the way we’re going to handle it.”
Bill Tomson contributed to this story.
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