I’m not one to throw red flags in the air but last week, Food Safety News ran a story about Mexican beef sickening 54 folks in Mexico because there was clenbuterol in the meat. Clenbuterol is an anabolic steroid that was used in meat production back in the ’70s but was found to be carcinogenic and now is banned as a growth promotant in food animals around the world.

The U.S. Cattlemen’s Association sent a letter to USDA last week urging USDA to take a closer look at Mexican beef imports, saying: “Allowing contaminated meat into our borders is unacceptable for a nation that prides itself on producing the highest quality, most sustainable, and safest beef in the world.

"We ask that APHIS and FSIS seriously evaluate the public health risks associated with importing beef and meat from Mexico, including conducting an equivalence verification to ensure that Mexico is still maintaining a regulatory food safety inspection system that is on par with the United States’.” They will say this about every country that exports beef to the U.S.

I’m not certain that any of that Mexican beef made it into the U.S., but in Mexico there is always someone prepared to game the system. The U.S. is Mexico’s No. 1 customer for beef and Mexico has been exporting fresh beef since 1995. The main packer in Mexico would be SuKarne, which operates five plants around Mexico and feeds 800,000 head a year, accounting for 65 percent of Mexico’s beef exports to the U.S. They also have a plant in Nicaragua.

From what I’m told, the livestock producers in Mexico using clenbuterol are the smaller feeders that serve secondary markets and locker plants serving local butchers and wet markets. The fact that they could even get clenbuterol is surprising.

I spoke with Derrell Peel, Oklahoma State University extension economist, who has lived in Mexico and studied their beef industry extensively. He said the clenbuterol issue has been around for a long time in Mexico and it flares up every now and then. Then the government tries to enforce regulation, but it’s there.

U.S. cattlemen have been concerned about drug residues in imported beef for a long time because livestock drug-use protocols are not the same from country to country. But I would honestly have to think that most major exporting countries follow Codex specifications for world trade; if they don’t, they are discovered quickly.

When the coronavirus came along last March and U.S. packing plants were forced to shut down, U.S. meat buyers started looking around the world for beef to fill the gap left by our own production capabilities.

Beef imports spiked in June for fresh, frozen and cooked beef; imports were 40.7 percent higher than a year ago. New Zealand was the biggest winner in this flash market. New Zealand had a lot of product on hand after China turned to South America for beef and left New Zealand and Australia out in the cold. Mexican imports jumped 10 percent.

I know many cattlemen were left out in the cold when our U.S. packing plants were shut down, or they had to reduce capacity, which created a million-head backlog in slaughter-ready cattle. Then other countries with capacity and plants already approved to send product to the U.S. reaped the benefits.

Global meat supply and demand always bewilders me in that lots of fresh and frozen beef, pork and poultry—and I suppose I should add fish into the lineup—moves around the world so freely.

We produce a higher quality grain-fed beef product that is our calling card. But this may surprise you that not everyone around the world likes a well-marbled ribeye. Grass-fed lean beef is a product that is in demand.

Now that U.S. packing plants are running near full capacity and wholesale beef markets are in a more normal trading range, we will not import near as much, and beef exports are starting to pick up, according to USDA.

However, I would keep an eye on Mexican beef producer SuKarne. They have a different business model. They are fully integrated, except at the cow-calf level. They will produce a 1,100-lb. live steer and sell the ribs and loins to the U.S. market.

They have a large facility in Mexicali, Mexico on the border in the Imperial Valley of California. That plant will service the Hispanic market in Southern California but also provide U.S. customers with a less expensive tenderloin and ribeye. There is a market for everything, but food safety is paramount. — PETE CROW

What do you think?

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