The Senate Finance Committee used a hearing Thursday to highlight the fact that Brazilian packers are producing beef from cattle raised illegally on land once made up of lush Amazon jungle, and some of the beef from those animals may end up in the U.S. market, competing with U.S.-raised product.

Large swaths of Amazon rainforest are burned or cut down every year in Brazil, paving the way for ranchers to raise cattle illegally. Brazilian packers – including JBS, which is considered one of the “big four” meatpackers in the U.S. – say they are trying to avoid buying cattle raised on deforested Amazon land, but it remains difficult to do so.

Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who focused much of his frustration over the illegal ranching on JBS, laid out the crux of the problem: Brazilian ranchers, he said, “take cattle born and raised on illegally deforested land and ship them to ranches with clean records. Suddenly those cattle are no longer considered the product of illegal deforestation. Upon buying and processing that cattle, JBS can claim they’re upholding their commitment to protect the Amazon.”

That system, called cattle laundering, is indeed a major problem, said Jason Weller, global chief sustainability officer for JBS and a witness at the hearing.

JBS, he said, has a “zero-tolerance deforestation sourcing policy” when it comes to buying cattle, but JBS doesn’t yet have the ability to fully avoid those laundered cattle.

Brazil does have an animal tracking system in which the government requires ranchers to provide cattle transport permits, or GTAs. The problem, said witness Rick Jacobsen, commodities policy manager for the nonprofit Environmental Investigation Agency, is the system is rife with fraud and the government is reducing public access to the records.

“We can get those records from our direct suppliers, but the issue is the hundreds of thousands of ranchers above them that supply cattle in the indirect supply chain, and we’re investing in building that capacity to get the traceability,” Weller said.

While GTAs help in knowing where Brazilian cattle were raised, a comprehensive animal ID program – something not being developed in Brazil – would be the best solution, Weller said.

Meanwhile, Brazilian beef is making its way to the U.S. market, Leo McDonnell, a Montana rancher representing the United States Cattlemen’s Association, said at the hearing. Despite rising concerns about Amazon deforestation, Brazilian beef production and exports are increasing, which is taking a toll on U.S. ranchers, he said.

Weller played down the impact of Brazilian beef exports on U.S. ranchers, saying Brazil only exports about 25% of its beef and, of that, only about 2% is shipped to the U.S.

But McDonnell said that's still a lot of meat about 460 million pounds of beef in 2022, or 65,000 head of cattle.

“What you have to remember is we have a very supply-sensitive industry,” said McDonnell, who added that often imports come in surges and suppress domestic prices.

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