President Donald Trump’s suggestion Tuesday that he would be willing to terminate trade deals that permit cattle imports left some aghast at the apparent threat to trade with Canada and Mexico, but U.S. Cattlemen’s Association President Brooke Miller says he’s pleased.

Miller, who recently spoke to “people who have (Trump’s) ear” and penned a letter to USDA asking the government to rein in cattle imports, says he has a follow-up meeting planned this week with a White House official to talk about the impact of imports on U.S. ranchers.

“We think it’s certainly reasonable to put a stay on imports until we get through this coronavirus pandemic and all the problems it’s created with the supply chain,” Miller told Agri-Pulse in an interview.

Beef may be getting harder to buy in grocery stores, but Miller said there are more than enough cattle in the U.S. to satisfy processing demands. Instead, he pointed to a bottleneck at packing plants that have had to close or slow down due to rising worker illnesses.

“In some parts of the U.S., producers are facing unimaginable decisions on what to do with their surplus of animals,” Miller said in a May 6 letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue. “The industry is facing nearly five weeks of backlogs and slowdowns, with less than 500,000 federally inspected cattle being slaughtered each week. For every week that this occurs, it is estimated that 150,000 to 240,000 cattle will be carried forward.”

That’s taking a major toll on U.S. ranchers who can’t get their cattle processed, but it’s even harder with animals coming across the borders, Miller said.

And it’s why Miller said he was very pleased to hear Trump’s comments Tuesday.

“I read yesterday where we take some cattle in from other countries because we have trade deals,” Trump said. “I think you should look at terminating those deals. 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.”

The problem is that those trade deals are the North American Free Trade Agreement and its successor, the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement that is scheduled to go into effect July 1 and represents one of Trump’s biggest trade and legislative victories.

Putting a halt to Canadian and Mexican cattle imports would directly contradict U.S. responsibilities under USMCA and NAFTA, says Joe Glauber, a senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute, former chief agriculture negotiator for the U.S. Trade Representative and former USDA chief economist.

Miller’s USCA isn’t alone in the effort to clamp down on cattle imports. The Nebraska-based Organization for Competitive Markets says the U.S. needs to go even further and halt beef imports.

“In the absence of Country of Origin Labeling, to continue to allow imported cattle and foreign beef to unfairly compete with domestic producers and products is the equivalent of kicking American ranchers while they are down,” OCM Interim Executive Director Ben Gotschall said in a letter sent to Perdue Wednesday.

But just hours after Trump’s comments, a USDA spokesperson reached out to Agri-Pulse to stress the importance of continued trade and trade agreements.

“President Trump always wants to make sure we are doing everything possible to help our farmers and ranchers succeed, so he is continually — and rightfully — making sure all our existing trade agreements work in their best interests,” the spokesperson said. “America’s cattlemen rely heavily on trade, with 12% of all production being exported. These markets are critical to remain open, to continue the export of both high-quality steaks and parts of the animal that are not consumed in the United States.”

Perdue also addressed the comments in a Wednesday interview with the Red River Farm Network and said he had not yet had the chance to discuss the matter with the president. 

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"To begin manipulating those types of results without a renegotiation of these agreements may not have the same effect that he would like to have," Perdue said. "We’ll have those discussions."

Furthermore, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association CEO Colin Woodall responded by saying, “Live cattle imports to the United States only come from Canada and Mexico and will continue to do so under the terms of the President’s newly negotiated USMCA.”

But Miller is undeterred.

“To be quite honest, NAFTA and USMCA are horrible agreements for livestock producers,” he said. “We were hopeful USMCA would (include) mandatory country of origin labeling so we could mitigate the problems with the trade imbalances with Canada and Mexico.”

And Miller scoffed at the prospect Mexican or Canadian retaliation to any new cattle trade barriers: “Let me tell you something, if we get in a trade war with Mexico and Canada, who do you think is going to win? (Trump) stared China down. Do you think he’s going to have any problem staring down Mexico and Canada?”

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