A cattleman’s beef with Brazil

I read with interest an article this week about Brazil finding its second case of mad cow disease within a few weeks.

That’s far away, you might think, and of little importance to us.

Wrong.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is considering allowing beef imports from Brazil, which currently are barred. Fourteen states would be given permission to export beef to the U.S. under the new rule, whose comment period recently closed. Not surprisingly, a throng of industry groups spoke out against it.

But not because of mad cow disease. It’s because of foot and mouth disease (not foot-in-mouth, mind you; that’s a totally different condition).

Foot and mouth affects cloven-hoofed animals, causing fever, blisters in the mouth and on the feet, and can be fatal. It typically doesn’t affect humans but can be spread from animal to animal through feed and other contact, or from person to animal on footwear, clothing, etc. According to Columbia University in New York, it can be spread through infected meat.

Scary stuff.

Sidenote: The U.S. has been FMD-free since 1929. Not surprising, then, that cattlemen here are against it.

“The economic cost of an FMD outbreak in the United States would be tremendous,” says Doug Sombke, president of the South Dakota Farmers Union.

“(FMD) could pose a threat to U.S. livestock herds and consequently to family farmers and ranchers across Montana,” says Alan Merrill, president of the Montana Farmers Union.

The National Farmers Union, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and other state, local and national farm groups let out a resounding “No” in response to the proposal.

But it has its supporters, too.

The American Meat Institute and American Farm Bureau are in favor.

“… the proposed rule promotes regulatory consistency and uniformity to the benefit of U.S. producers, processors and exporters of these same products,” the American Meat Institute says, adding that USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service performed analyses of the risks of an FMD outbreak in the U.S., and determined that beef can be imported safely.

The rule would allow an average of about 40,000 metric tons (44,000 tons) per year of Brazilian beef, increasing U.S. imports by less than 1 percent. APHIS says this would reduce the wholesale price of beef by 0.11 percent, retail price by 0.04 percent and the price of cattle by 0.14 percent.

Those figures aren’t impressive to me.

With outbreaks of multiple diseases in Brazil, minimal cost savings just don’t seem to be worth the risk (however small it might be), regardless of regulations and safeguards. You know what they say: Hindsight is 20-20.

Yep. But foresight should be adequate to catch plenty of mistakes before they happen — before they negatively affect livestock and the families that sacrifice so much to keep their animals alive and healthy.

Is this proposal a good one? Is it a worthwhile endeavor?

Personally, I don’t know. Do you?

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