By MIKE MCGRAW
The Kansas City Star
Foot and mouth disease is so highly contagious it can be spread on a gentle breeze or the tires of farm machinery.
File photo by PAULO FRIDMAN | Bloomberg Foot and mouth disease is so highly contagious it can be spread on a gentle breeze or the tires of farm machinery. The disease, which affects cattle and other hooved animals, was eradicated in the U.S. more than 80 years ago. But a government proposal to import fresh beef from Brazil — where the disease is still active — has ignited fears of a new epidemic that could cost the U.S. cattle industry billions of dollars.
The disease, which affects cattle and other hooved animals, was eradicated in the U.S. more than 80 years ago. But a government proposal to import fresh beef from Brazil — where the disease is still active — has ignited fears of a new epidemic that could cost the U.S. cattle industry billions of dollars.
The idea is “ludicrous,” South Dakota rancher Tracy Trask wrote on a government website where the proposal was posted. “Have you lost your freakin’ minds? What would be the economic benefit that would outweigh the decimation of the cattle industry in this country…?”
The proposal has united factions within the U.S. beef industry that rarely agree on anything. Of the more than 500 comments posted on the website as of Tuesday, nearly all are negative.
The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, whose members include large beef packers that could benefit from the proposal, says it shares those concerns. The group, which opposes such imports as long as foot and mouth remains a problem in Brazil, has asked the government for “a potload of documents” on the proposal, said Colin Woodall, the association’s vice president for government affairs.
The proposal, from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, showed up on the agency’s website two days before Christmas last year.
USDA experts said in the proposal that they would limit imports to beef from Brazilian states that have had no recent cases of foot and mouth disease.
“We are aware of the concerns of ranchers,” an APHIS spokeswoman told The Kansas City Star on Friday. “USDA bases its import decisions on science and will continue to protect the health of U.S. agriculture through appropriate importation eligibility requirements.”
Officials said they based their assessment that imports would not reignite the disease here at least in part on information provided by Brazil’s Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Food Supply, and on site visits by U.S. experts in Brazil.
“We concluded that Brazil has infrastructure and emergency response capabilities adequate to effectively contain and eradicate FMD in the event of an outbreak and to comply with U.S. import restrictions on products from affected areas,” USDA said in the proposal.
The Brazilian government requested that the U.S. conduct a review of import restrictions after U.S. and Brazilian officials announced that they would work to lift trade barriers between the two countries.
The USDA originally closed public comments on the proposal two weeks ago, but it reopened comments Thursday after the proposal was met with swift and negative reactions.
Among the comments:
“US beef producers cannot afford the unbelievable risk of importing beef from a country with known FMD. We eliminated it — don’t haul it back in!”
Eight U.S. senators, including Kansas Republicans Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran, wrote Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack last month to request a 60-day extension of the public comment period, saying they were “concerned about the possible risk of Foot-and-Mouth Disease (FMD) being brought into the United States.”
USDA officials extended the comment period until April 22, after which they could amend or withdraw the proposal.
The U.S. had nine outbreaks of the disease between 1870 and 1929, the most serious in 1914, infecting 170,000 cattle, sheep and swine in 3,500 herds.
A 1924 outbreak required the slaughter and disposal of 109,000 farm animals and an estimated 22,000 deer. The last outbreak, in 1929, started in hogs that had eaten infected meat scraps thrown out by a tourist steamship carrying meat from Argentina.
Foot and mouth today remains one of the most economically damaging diseases in the world, with scores of countries still working to eradicate it.
Humans do not contract the disease, but they can carry it in their nostrils and on their clothing and pass it on to animals. Its effects are devastating to livestock, causing high fevers, excessive slobbering, going off their feed, lameness and, in some cases, death.
And the disease can survive in fresh beef from infected animals, said Bob Larson, a veterinarian and professor at Kansas State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine.
It could possibly spread from there to live animals here, he said. Although that would require a series of unlikely events to occur, it’s not impossible, he added.
“It is probably a pretty small risk,” Larson said, “but the question people are asking is, is that an appropriate amount of risk for the trade benefits we would receive?”
Juergen Richt, a veterinary microbiologist at Kansas State, agrees that if infection from Brazilian meat were to reach a susceptible animal in the U.S., “yes, we will have a problem.”
If that occurred, Richt said, the U.S. would quickly be designated as a foot-and-mouth-positive country and would have to stop exporting meat, costing the meat industry here billions of dollars.
In their objection to the proposal, the Kansas Cattlemen’s Association cited a K-State report that found that a foot and mouth outbreak in Kansas alone would cost the state nearly $1 billion.
Richt compared the effects of a potential outbreak of foot and mouth here to a 2003 incident in which one cow in Washington state was found to have bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or “mad cow disease.”
That incident immediately closed more than 50 countries to U.S. beef imports and cost the cattle industry billions of dollars.
In the end, said Richt, foot and mouth disease “is one of the most contagious agents in the animal kingdom.”
It is so efficient and dangerous, said Richt, who also directs the Department of Homeland Security’s Center of Excellence for Emerging and Zoonotic Animal Diseases at K-State, that U.S officials are aware of its potential as a weapon of terrorism.
Some think importing fresh beef from Brazil could help shore up sagging U.S. supplies and help drive down sky-high beef prices in the U.S.
“There are clear economic signals” to pursue importing more beef, said Glynn Tonsor, an agricultural economist at Kansas State.
However, the amount anticipated by the Brazilian proposal, at least at this point, is miniscule.
The USDA says it anticipates somewhere between 20,000 and 65,000 metric tons of Brazilian beef would come into the U.S. — less than a 1 percent increase in total U.S. beef imports.
Bill Bullard, head of the Montana-based Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, said he thinks the real driver behind the proposal is JBS, S.A., a Brazilian beef company that has set up shop in the U.S.
Bullard, whose group believes big packers and foreign beef are driving small ranchers out of business, said the USDA is just “kowtowing” to JBS, the world’s largest beef producer and the third largest U.S. beef packer.
“JBS wants to import higher-risk cattle and beef into the United States, without regard to the well-being of the U.S. cattle industry and the safety of U.S. consumers,” Bullard said.
He thinks JBS, which contributes large amounts to U.S. and Brazilian politicians and which benefits from Brazilian government loans, is at least partly behind the Brazilian government’s push for the proposal.
USDA officials said JBS did not lobby them over the issue, and the company denies they are behind the initiative.
The company said in a statement Friday that it “played no role whatsoever in this negotiation process between two sovereign governments.”
The company added that it supports “transparent, predictable international trading conditions based on sound science. We believe any effort to eliminate trade barriers … and enhance cooperation between our two countries is a positive for the people of both Nations.”
Bullard and others note, however, that JBS and Brazil have had their share of trade and import problems.
Last year, Brazilian officials acknowledged a two-year delay in reporting an “atypical” BSE-positive cow in that nation’s beef herd, which would have stopped exports to many countries. Brazilian officials blamed the delay on a “logistical anomaly” at its laboratory.
And in 2010, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service recalled 258,000 pounds of cooked beef from a Chicago-based JBS plant. The beef had been imported from Brazil despite a U.S. ban on such imports because of high levels of vermifuge, a drug used to control intestinal worms in cattle.
To comment on the proposal
Go to www.regulations.gov. Commenters should type in APHIS-2009-0017 and click on “Comment Now!”
Comments also can be mailed to Docket No. APHIS-2009-0017, Regulatory Analysis and Development, PPD, APHIS, Station 3A-03.8, 4700 River Road Unit 118, Riverdale, MD 20737-1238.