WASHINGTON, Jan. 6, 2016 - Ranchers failed last month to get Congress to delay USDA’s plan to lift bans on Brazilian and Argentine beef imports, but lawmakers did pass legislation that industry representatives hope will boost long-term protection from ailments like foot and mouth disease (FMD) that haven’t attacked U.S. herds in decades.

Groups including the United States Cattlemen’s Association and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association had been urging lawmakers for months to put a stop to USDA’s efforts. The department, they said, had failed to take into account the risk that Brazil and Argentina posed because of their history with FMD.

There was real hope that Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and other lawmakers could block USDA from lifting the bans with a provision in the massive 2016 omnibus spending bill that Congress passed in December.

That didn’t happen. Instead, ranchers got new legislation requiring USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) to do a lot more work in the future when it comes to making sure products from foreign beef exporters are disease-free. APHIS, according to the legislation, must periodically review all of the countries it has already approved to export to the U.S. and present its reports to Congress.

“Our guys despise this concept of bringing in at-risk product, but [this legislation] is a silver lining,” said Jess Peterson, a lobbyist for the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association. “It’s getting something out of a bad deal.”

There hasn’t been an FMD outbreak in the U.S. since 1929, and the U.S. has gone to great lengths to keep it out. It’s a highly virulent livestock disease that sharply reduces the amount of meat or milk animals can produce, but it is not a human health threat.

APHIS has until April to put together a plan that includes several demands from Congress. The legislation requires that APHIS fully document a foreign country’s “veterinary control and oversight; disease history and vaccination practices; livestock demographics and traceability; epidemiological separation from potential sources of infection; surveillance practices; diagnostic laboratory capabilities and emergency preparedness and response.”

The new requirements, together with a mandate that APHIS share its findings with Congress, will make ranchers feel a lot safer, Peterson said. And, he said, it means that countries like Brazil and Argentina won’t be able to get away with going through just one audit to get access to the U.S. and then nothing later.

“Argentina and Brazil are gearing up to get all this stuff done, but then we keep it going,” Peterson said. “We don’t see this is as a one and then done situation.”

But forcing transparency on APHIS is also key for rancher representatives. NCBA was furious with the agency this year when it published its final rules to open the U.S. market to beef from new areas in Brazil and Argentina without first divulging the results of its audits.

“Our office actually received over 600 pages of documents relevant to Brazil in Portuguese and over 25 percent of the documents for Argentina were posted to the Federal Register in Spanish, neither with any translation available, NCBA President Philip Ellis said last year. “No one should have to learn a second language to review a proposed U.S. government regulation.”

Giving new market access to Brazil and Argentina would result in an additional 40,000 metric tons of beef imports every year, according to NCBA calculations, but the group insists that’s not why it’s against lifting the bans. Despite USDA assurances, NCBA believes allowing the beef in increases the risk of creating a new pathway for FMD. The group estimates that an FMD outbreak in the U.S. could cost the U.S. cattle industry between $37 billion and $228 billion.

While APHIS released final rules to allow fresh and chilled beef imports from northern Argentina and 14 Brazilian states in August, there are still some steps to go before trade can start, USDA officials say.

USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service still has to complete its audits of slaughter and processing facilities in those regions. FSIS officials finished their site visits to Brazil in October. Argentina, one FSIS official said, has delayed the process at its facilities by failing to hand in an “initially equivalency” report that is required before site visits can occur.

The last major FMD outbreak in Brazil was in 2006. In its risk assessment released in December 2013, APHIS concluded that the country did a good job detecting the disease and then eradicating it. Argentina has gone even longer without an outbreak, according to APHIS. The country’s last FMD outbreak was 13 years ago in 2002, the agency said.


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