1

Montana producers concerned as U.S. lifts ban on Brazilian beef

Montana’s beef cattle industry could face another blow with last week’s decision by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to resume imports of Brazilian beef.(Herald file photo, Teresa Getten)

(Havre Herald) After a years-long ban, Brazilian beef is slated to hit the U.S. market again.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service announced plans late last Friday to lift a ban on beef imported from Brazil.

Montana beef producers, who together make up a $1.7 billion industry, aren’t thrilled about the latest development.

“It’s not good news,” said Gilles Stockton, chair of the Montana Cattlemen’s Association and a semi-retired rancher from Grass Range. “This Brazilian beef, it’s not going to help.”

Some Montana federal legislators aren’t pulling any punches either.

“This is a slap in the face to Montana producers, who raise the highest quality beef in the world, and to Montana families, who shouldn’t have to worry if the meat they buy at the store is safe for their kids to eat,” Democratic Sen. Jon Tester said in a press release.

In 2016, the U.S. opened its market to beef from Brazil. But by June 2017, the USDA closed the door to those imports following an investigation into corruption involving Brazil’s health inspectors and meat companies, as well as concerns about public health, sanitary conditions and animal health issues.

For Montana ranchers, Stockton said, allowing more beef into the market — inferior beef, he said — is another hit that could continue a depression ranchers have faced for years.

A “little-known secret” is that Montana’s livestock industry has been in crisis for half a decade, Stockton said. Montana’s beef industry is largely cattle raised to be sold and sent to feedlots. When Congress rescinded COOL — country of origin labeling — that kicked off the crisis, Stockton said.

On Dec. 18, 2015, Congress repealed the COOL law for beef and pork after the World Trade Organization threatened $1 billion in retaliatory import tariffs would be imposed if the rule was not overturned. Billings-based cattle trade association R-CALF USA fought hard against the repeal of COOL to no avail. The repeal was part of an omnibus spending bill signed by President Barack Obama.

The high point of the market was in 2014, when ranchers were getting about $2.50 per pound on feeder calves, Stockton said. The repeal of COOL kicked off a depression that dropped beef prices by more than a dollar, to about $1.30 per pound. Since then, the price has stabilized at $1.50.

Allowing more competition will put a dent in the hope ranchers had for recovery, Stockton said. The Brazilian beef is going to hit the market just “when we were hoping to get out of this depression.”

There’s also the food safety aspect of the equation, Stockton added.

“They closed the market because of rotten meat,” he said, echoing a common sentiment. “Why should their product now be trusted?”

“Let’s be clear, Brazil put American families at risk by exporting rotten beef into American grocery stores and covering it up with cancer-causing chemicals,” Tester, of Big Sandy, said. “Now (U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue) is letting them off the hook without a long-term plan to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Montana’s other U.S. senator, Republican Steve Daines, has written to Perdue detailing what he wants to see from the government regarding the deal.

“Given that the United States halted Brazilian raw beef imports less than one year after Brazil was granted access in 2016, we have serious concerns about Brazil’s ability to maintain adequate food safety standards over the long run,” Daines wrote to Perdue. “Considering Brazil’s multiple failed attempts to uphold equivalent food safety standards, we believe a complete verification process of certified Brazilian facilities may be warranted.”

Daines specifically asked Perdue the following questions:

  • How will the Food Safety and Inspection Service monitor Brazil’s progress in fully implementing the corrective actions?
  • What’s the plan if Brazil fails to implement all necessary corrective actions?
  • Given that the Food Safety and Inspection Service audited only eight of the 28 facilities in Brazil certified for U.S. exports, does the agency plan to audit additional facilities? If so, when?
  • When, if ever, does the inspection agency expect to have audited all 28 certified facilities?
  • On what basis will the inspection agency conduct routine audits of already certified facilities?

U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Bozeman, Montana’s lone House of Representatives member, touched on the wider scope of agriculture trade.

“The trade agreements President Trump is negotiating are expanding markets to Montana’s ag producers, including a recent deal with Japan that further opens their market to American beef,” Gianforte said in a statement. “After two years, USDA is revisiting Brazilian imports. USDA must certify Brazilian producers can meet our standards before shipments begin, and will inspect all shipments again upon arrival to the U.S.

“This announcement follows Brazil resuming purchases of our grain,” Gianforte added. “The fact is Montana ranchers produce the best beef in the world, and I appreciate the work of the Trump administration to expand market access for Montana’s high-quality ag products.”

Back on the Hi-Line, local business owner Dexter Buck, who owns Bear Paw Meats, had a concise response to the news.

“I’m not a big fan,” Buck said.

The Chinook-based retailer is known for selling high-quality beef raised by area ranchers. In addition to food safety concerns, as a business owner, Buck said he is concerned Brazil’s lower quality meat will drag down the price of his product.