Montana producers, politicians cheer ban on Brazilian beef imports

A man cools cattle on a beached boat in the Amazon river, in the city of Manaus, Brazil. (REUTERS/Bruno Kelly)

Montana producers and politicians applauded Thursday’s announced suspension of all imports of Brazilian beef.

“Montanans raise the best beef in the world, and the government shouldn’t be undercutting them by importing unsafe, even rotten products from foreign countries,” said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana.

Since March, the USDA has rejected 11 percent of Brazilian fresh beef products, compared to the rejection rate of 1 percent for shipments from the rest of the world, the agency said. The shipments, totaling about 1.9 million pounds, raised concerns about public health, animal health and sanitation, according to the USDA.

The agency said none of the rejected lots made it into the U.S. market.

The move to block Brazilian meat is a turnaround for Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, who warned in March that Brazil might retaliate if the United States halted beef imports.

On Thursday, he said in a statement that “although international trade is an important part of what we do at USDA, and Brazil has long been one of our partners, my first priority is to protect American consumers.”

The U.S. suspension will remain in place until Brazil’s Agriculture Ministry “takes corrective action which the USDA finds satisfactory,” according to the agency.

Tester has repeatedly called on USDA to halt the importation of beef from Brazil, and earlier this year introduced legislation to ban Brazilian beef for 120 days until safety concerns could be addressed.

On Wednesday, Tester called on Purdue to halt imports after five Brazilian meat-packing plants were removed from the exporter list because of tainted beef.

“Food on our tables must be safe to eat,” Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., said following Thursday’s suspension. “Montana families have to know that their food won’t make them sick. I’m glad to see my efforts to secure our food supply be prioritized by Secretary Perdue.”

Daines and a number of Montana ranchers questioned Perdue about the unsafe shipments earlier this month during the Montana Ag Summit in Great Falls.

Both Daines and Tester pressed the new agriculture secretary about the issue during his Senate confirmation hearings.

At Perdue’s confirmation hearing, Daines called for thorough inspections of Brazilian beef by the Food Safety and Inspection Service, and that the policy of maintaining 100 percent re-inspection and testing of all meat imports from Brazil will be retained “indefinitely”.

In addition, he raised this issue in a letter to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) on March 22 that demanded USDA “utilize all appropriate and legal means necessary to ensure that U.S. consumers are not at risk to any imported meat from Brazil or other countries.

A slew of global buyers, including China, Egypt and Chile, curtailed imports of Brazilian meat after Brazilian federal police unveiled an investigation into alleged corruption in the sector on March 17.

Brazilian authorities said at the time that meat companies made payments to government health officials to forego inspections and cover up health violations.

China is not expected to follow the U.S. move as it only permits imports of frozen Brazilian beef, which has different requirements to fresh meat, said analysts.

Brazil is also China’s top beef supplier, and would be difficult to replace in the short-term, said Pan Chenjun, senior animal protein analyst at Rabobank.

The United States began allowing shipments of fresh beef from Brazil last year after banning them due to concerns about foot and mouth disease in cattle.