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Sue Lani Madsen: Brazilian beef decision highlights power struggles behind trade pacts

Brazil is in the headlines with Olympics controversies, fears of Zika virus and warnings about sewage-polluted water off the beaches. And then there was the USDA announcement opening U.S. markets to imports of fresh and frozen Brazilian beef.

The non-headline making announcement tips the scales for me against the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement. Brazil isn’t part of the TPP, but this move highlights the power struggles inherent in complex trade agreements under the World Trade Organization rules.

According to USDA’s Food Safety & Inspection Service, Brazil has adopted health and safety standards judged as equivalent to those in the U.S. But independent cattle ranchers and consumer watchdogs are skeptical.

Adopting minimum standards is not the same thing as consistently meeting those standards. It’s difficult to trust in a high level of compliance from a country unable to uphold basic sanitation standards for managing human waste.

That skepticism is supported by the Food Safety inspectors at U.S. ports of entry. Food & Water Watch, after filing Freedom of Information Act requests to get the data, reported “Brazil was among the top five sources of rejected products – over 2.7 million pounds were turned away by FSIS border inspectors for serious food safety violations.”

Beyond the danger to human health is the danger to cattle herds in the U.S.

Until this decision, beef from Brazil has only been imported pre-cooked for use primarily in further processed foods like canned soups. Fresh or frozen product has the potential to bring with it not only bovine spongiform encephalopathy (also known as mad cow disease) but also foot-and-mouth disease. Either disease would devastate an agricultural sector already under pressure from regulatory overload.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced this as a great export opportunity for U.S. cattle producers, a claim called “absurd” by Bill Bullard, chief executive of R-CALF USA, a nonprofit that represents cattle and sheep producers on trade issues.

“Brazil produces far more beef than it can consume… (and is) the world’s third largest beef exporter, behind only India and Australia,” he said.

Jess Peterson, representing the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association, emphasized Brazil’s poor record on labor and environmental standards with the World Trade Organization. The association is also concerned with animal disease issues. Peterson said, “we don’t believe you can regionalize a portion of the country and keep out an airborne disease” like foot-and-mouth disease. The USDA ruling applies to specific states within Brazil, but internal state boundaries are porous.

R-CALF and the Cattleman’s Association represent independent cattle producers on marketing and regulatory issues, and are frequently at odds with the powerful National Cattlemen’s Beef Association lobby. That organization is controlled by the packers and processors who have an interest in keeping prices paid to cattlemen (and -women) as low as possible.

The power struggle behind the scenes is highlighted by the federal government’s mixed messaging over Country of Origin Labeling.

On the one hand, we have USDA promoting healthy food and local agriculture through “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food.” The emphasis is on meeting consumers’ interest in the origin of their food.

On the other hand, the federal government backed down on such labeling after adverse World Trade Organization rulings on complaints filed by Canada and Mexico. It was a Congressional choice to repeal Country of Origin Labeling, but it wasn’t much of a choice with the WTO threatening billions in fines unless the requirements were dropped.

The 2013 labeling repeal wasn’t universal – it targeted beef and pork. The multinational owners of U.S. meat-packing companies didn’t want to slow down their high-speed production plants with traceability requirements. They got their way.

Mandatory Country of Origin Labeling remains in place for chicken, lamb, and goat; wild and farm-raised fish and shellfish; fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables; peanuts, pecans, macadamia nuts, and ginseng. The politics of country labeling make it clear where the power lies behind the decision to import fresh and frozen Brazilian beef.

Who benefits from tanking cattle prices? Not the ranchers. A flood of cheap imports lets the packers and processors drive down prices paid for higher-quality American beef cattle.

As one rancher put it this week, “We’re under the most stringent production methods in the world, we’re expected to perform at a higher level than anybody.” No one benefits from breaking local producers and losing control of our food supply.

Columnist Sue Lani Madsen can be reached at or on Twitter: @SueLaniMadsen.

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