Sharon Harvat drives a blue pick-up truck through a field of several hundred pregnant heifers on her property outside Scottsbluff in western Nebraska and notes, “On a warm day they’ll lay out flat like that...”.
Harvat and her husband John run their cattle here in the Nebraska panhandle during the winter and take them back to the mountains in northern Colorado when the calves are born. Harvat says, when she heard about a proposal to open up 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.”
An outbreak of foot and mouth disease. Even though it rarely transmits to humans, it’s super contagious in livestock, and spreads rapidly in cloven-hooved beasts. Like Harvat’s cattle. “I would imagine it would spread like wildfire. And then what would that do to the ag economy? It would shut it down.”
The U.S. hasn’t had an outbreak in more than 80 years. Brazil has. The latest was in 2006. Outbreaks in other countries have led to mass slaughter of animals and put a kibosh on any beef trade, causing huge economic damage in the billions of dollars. And that leaves Harvat wondering who and what’s behind proposals to import Brazilian beef.
Gary Colgrove, a director with the USDA’s animal and plant health inspection service, which oversees trade relationships, is one who knows the risks. “We certainly understand the concerns, yes, the concern that we’d be putting the U.S. livestock industry at risk by allowing these imports. However, we feel that the risk analysis is robust and it’s out there for the public to scrutinize.”
That risk analysis says, yes, a foot and mouth disease outbreak would be devastating. But all the fear is unwarranted. Colgrove says Brazil’s Department of Agriculture has proven its ability to contain and control the disease. The country’s been vaccinating cattle against foot and mouth for years. And 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. Plus, accepting imports from Brazil could pave the way for U.S. beef exports to the emerging world power.
But not everyone’s convinced, including Colin Wooddall with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the country’s biggest beef lobby group. “We cannot jeopardize the health of our domestic herd just for the sake of opening a market.”
The association hasn’t dismissed the proposal and is urging the USDA to move slowly. He says he’s asked for background data from the federal government, documents he’s yet to see. And if push comes to shove, Wooddall notes that “We have a lot of friends in Congress who are very interested and concerned about this particular issue and they would probably be more than happy to engage if it got to that point.”
It’s not just the specter of disease worrying ranchers. Trade deals like this bring economic consequences too. Any grill master knows beef prices are at record highs, due to years of drought and burdensome feed costs. According to Steve Koontz, an agricultural economist at Colorado State University, “We’re very short on ground beef. We will have very high ground beef prices, and you can mitigate that a little bit with Brazilian beef.” The added beef supply could bring down American grocery store prices, and Koontz says that’s good news for consumers and fast food joints.
And at the same time, it’s potentially bad news for ranchers like Sharon Harvat, who could see the price she receives at the sale barn drop too. “I know there’s a shortage of beef in this country. And that’s why the prices are so high. But is that enough to justify our food security?”
Harvat won’t have an answer for a while. A final decision from the USDA on allowing Brazilian beef isn’t expected for months.