Fresh Brazilian beef might be returning to the U.S. However, questions regarding inspections exist, and long-running worries about the safety of the U.S. cattle herd remain.
On Monday, March 25, Brazil’s Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Farming issued a beef trade-related announcement. It claimed the USDA had announced plans to audit the Brazil’s beef inspection system in June 2019.
WLJ reached out to the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) to verify this claim. A FSIS spokesperson responded, saying: “We are aware of the Brazilian media reports specifying dates for an FSIS audit. For the safety of our auditors, we do not confirm or publicly announce audit dates. We intend to conduct an audit in Brazil in the near future.”
The Brazilian announcement came less than a week after President Donald Trump met with Brazil’s President Jair Messias Bolsonaro. After the March 19 meeting, the pair of presidents issued a joint statement regarding trade topics, beef among them.
“In order to allow for the resumption of Brazil’s beef exports, the United States agreed to expeditiously schedule a technical visit by the United States Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service to audit Brazil’s raw beef inspection system, as soon as it is satisfied with Brazil’s food safety documentation,” the joint statement read.
This sentiment was not warmly welcomed by representatives of the beef industry.
Following the joint statement from Trump and Bolsonaro, Dr. Brooke Miller, vice president of United States Cattlemen’s Association, issued a statement opposing the potential plans and described Brazil as “consistently a bad actor in the global marketplace.”
“From May 15 to June 2, 2017, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service conducted an audit of the Brazilian beef industry due to a high number of rejected exports from the country attempting to make their way into our borders,” she wrote.
“In total, over 1.9 million pounds of Brazilian beef product has been rejected due to ‘public health concerns, sanitary conditions, and animal health issues.’”
She also highlighted the concern over foot-and-mouth disease from Brazil.
“The nearly 50-page report detailed findings of blood clots, bone chips and abscesses in imported beef from Brazil, proving that mitigation efforts currently in place are not adequate to keep products that can carry foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) out of the U.S.”
Currently, Brazil is listed as FMD-free with vaccination by the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE). They gained this ranking in May 2018.
Bill Bullard, CEO of R-CALF USA, also highlighted the risk of FMD in response to the March 19 joint announcement.
“President Trump’s capitulation to Brazil’s demand that the U.S. quickly resume fresh beef imports is a classic example of politics trumping science,” he wrote.
“If the restrictions are lifted, the decision to do so will be as political as the decisions made by the previous administration. This means the only meaningful protection available to U.S. cattle producers against the introduction of FMD and to U.S. consumers against consuming unsafe beef will be sheer luck.”
Due to its earlier FMD designation, Brazil was able to export only cooked beef to the U.S. for years. It was briefly allowed to ship fresh beef to the U.S. beginning in 2016, but this ended in June 2017 following the findings of FSIS audits mentioned above by Miller.
According to records from the USDA Economic Research Service, the U.S. imported 140.9 million pounds of beef from Brazil last year. This is a relatively high import volume in recent years, though the early 2000s saw the highest import volumes, exceeding 280 million pounds. Though the records do not distinguish between cooked vs. fresh/frozen product, only cooked product was allowed in 2018.
The import volumes of beef from Brazil in 2016 and 2017—while Brazil was allowed to export fresh and frozen beef to the U.S.—were 152.7 million pounds and 137.9 million pounds respectively. The most recent data shows imports of beef from Brazil in January 2019 were up 39 percent by volume compared to January 2018 (11.5 million pounds vs. 8.3 million pounds, respectively).
Kent Bacus, director of international trade at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), took a more measured tone on the prospect of renewed fresh beef imports from Brazil. He commented in response to the March 19 joint announcement, saying:
“We’re not thrilled with the prospect of Brazil potentially sending beef to the United States, but we are grateful to see USDA’s commitment to science-based trade by using an FSIS audit to review Brazil’s food safety system. We expect this will be a much more rigorous and well-documented process than the approval process conducted by the previous administration. Rest assured, NCBA will continue to monitor this process closely so that USDA takes all necessary steps to make sure Brazil meets an equivalent safety standard to the United States.” — Kerry Halladay, WLJ editor