Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Ranchers Wary As U.S. Considers Brazilian Beef Imports

Sharon Harvat drives a blue pickup truck through a field of several hundred pregnant heifers on her property outside Scottsbluff in western Nebraska. Harvat and her husband run their cattle in the Nebraska panhandle during the winter, then back to northern Colorado after the calves are born. Harvat says when she heard about a proposal to open up the beef trade with Brazil, she felt a pit in her stomach. "On an operation like ours, where we travel a lot with our cattle, that would probably come to an abrupt halt if there was an outbreak," she says. She's talking about an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. Although it rarely transmits to humans, the foot-and-mouth virus is very contagious in livestock. The U.S. hasn't had an outbreak in more than 80 years, but Brazil has: The latest was in 2006. Outbreaks in other countries, like Great Britain, have led to mass slaughter of animals, causing huge economic damage in the billions of dollars. The Department of Agriculture wants to greenlight imports of fresh beef from Brazil, arguing that there's little risk of the disease hitching a ride to the U.S. on packages of meat. But the deal has ranchers like Harvat wringing their hands. The government disagrees. "We certainly understand the concerns ... that we'd be putting the U.S. livestock industry at risk by allowing these imports," says Gary Colgrove, a director with the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which oversees trade relationships. "However, we feel that the risk analysis is robust and it's out there for the public to scrutinize." That risk analysis says that a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak would indeed be devastating, but that the fear is unwarranted. Colgrove says Brazil has proved its ability to contain and control the disease and has been vaccinating cattle against foot-and-mouth for years. When American inspectors visited Brazil over the past decade, ports were well staffed and a system of permits to keep the disease in check was up to speed, the analysis says. Still, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association is urging caution. It is asking USDA to withdraw the proposal...more

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