U.S. cattle industry has beef with decision to allow Argentine imports

Story highlights

  • U.S. will lift ban on beef coming in from parts of Argentina and Brazil
  • It says safeguards in place to prevent another food-and-mouth disease problem
  • American cattle industry unhappy with decision; cites safety and fairness

(CNN)Good news for meat lovers: The U.S. government is lifting a 14-year ban on Argentine beef.

The United States banned the product after an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease plagued the South American country in 2001.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service said that it was amending its previous regulations to allow the importation of fresh (chilled or frozen) beef from northern Argentina and 14 states in Brazil.
    It said the countries must adhere to "specific conditions that mitigate the risk of foot-and-mouth disease."
    "This is the first step of a process for these regions to gain access to the U.S. market for beef. Brazil and Argentina also need to meet food safety standards prior to being able to export any beef to the United States," the USDA said in its June 29 statement.
    Argentina's minister of agriculture, Carlos Casamiquela, said that the move would help remove barriers of trade in other countries. He said Argentina lost $1.6 billion due to the ban imposed by the United States and said that the country has had disease-free meat since 2007.
    While asado enthusiasts are ecstatic about finally being able to enjoy some of the famed grilled meats, not everyone in the U.S. beef industry is pleased.
    The National Cattlemen's Beef Association said it opposes the new regulation because of animal health concerns. "No trade is worth jeopardizing our herd health," it said.
    The organization's president, Phillip Ellis, who owns a cattle farm in Wyoming, said the Obama administration was threatening the livelihood of hundreds of thousands of Americans.
    "The actions of this administration for purely political gain threaten the very viability of our entire industry and threaten hundreds of thousands of American cattle-producing families," he said.
    Chase Adams, the communications director for the organization, told CNN said it is concerned that the health safety process was not completed to ensure products from Argentina can enter the United States safely.
    "Foot-and-mouth disease is a highly transmissible and highly concerning disease. The smallest outbreak in any of our herds would cost the industry gravely," and the organization is less concerned about the market getting flooded by other products, he said.
    "We have regulatory processes in place and the administration is just ignoring them," he said. "We support free trade, but it has to be based on sound science," he said.
    The USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service said its import decisions are based on sound science and thorough risk assessment.
    "We will only make decisions to allow imports when sufficient protective safeguards are in place," spokeswoman Joelle Hayden said Wednesday in an email to CNN. The United States will require conditions are met so that exported beef will not harbor the disease.
    The agency said that its risk assessments, including the findings from the most recent site visit in 2013, confirmed that Argentina and Brazil have in place the necessary infrastructure and programs and that the countries would be able to detect, control and report foot-and-mouth disease in the event of an outbreak.
    The USDA emphasized that this is just the first step of a process for these regions in both Brazil and Argentina to gain access to the U.S. beef market.

    Argentina remains closed to U.S. beef

    Joe Schuele, director of communications for the U.S. Meat Export Federation, said that a particular part of Patagonia in Argentina had previously been allowed to export meat to the U.S. but it was not a large cow-producing region. He said that now that the ban has been lifted, there would be a larger impact on the U.S. domestic market.
    The federal government acknowledged that beef imported from Argentina will be more directly competitive with beef produced in the U.S.
    However, it said, this is a relatively small quantity of Argentine beef.
    "Argentina's proposed export quantity represents less than 1 percent of U.S. beef production and is unlikely to have a major impact on the U.S. domestic market," it said in a report.
    Schuele told CNN that local meat exporters and producers are concerned because Argentina's market remains closed to the United States.
    "Argentina hasn't accepted any beef exports from the U.S. since 2003 because of a mad cow disease case. That market has been closed to us for almost 12 years," he told CNN.
    "We would be expanding our imports to Argentina when they won't accept anything from us," Schuele said. "We export beef to just about 100 countries and very few markets are completely closed to us. Argentina is one of them."
    The USDA confirmed that Argentina does not currently allow imports of U.S. beef. It did not provide comment as to whether the policy would change now that the United States has lifted its ban.
    Argentina will be joining Australia, New Zealand, Uruguay, Canada, Mexico and other countries that supply the United States with meat, Schuele said.
    Nicolas Kalaitzis, co-owner of Sur Argentinian steakhouse in Huntington, New York, said the idea of beef being imported into the United States from Argentina doesn't really excite him. Kalaitzis has been in the meat business for more than 16 years and co-owns two Argentinian steakhouses.
    "The American meat here has become just as good as the Argentinian meat and you have a better chance of getting fresher meat from here than from there," he said, explaining that the meat will be frozen and loaded on a ship for several weeks before reaching distributors.
    "Even if it's fresh, it will travel for 25 or 30 days. While I would love to use Argentinian meat, I know that by the time it goes through a port and comes to my establishment, it won't be the freshest option for my customers," he said.