Twice in the last twelve months the U.S. Department of Agriculture has proposed rules to import beef from specific regions of South American countries. And twice in the last twelve months agricultural organizations and lawmakers have met the agency head on and said “not so fast” in moving forward with the proposals due to potential risk of introducing foot and mouth disease (FMD) into the United States.

FMD is a highly contagious disease that affects cloven-hoofed animals, including cattle. It has not been present in the United States since 1929. Reintroduction of FMD into the United States would result in almost immediate closure of international markets, significant economic impacts on the domestic industry due to depopulation, movement restrictions and potential shutdown of cattle trade in affected areas. In all, it could cost billions.

The first proposal would allow imports of fresh beef from 14 Brazilian states into the United States. When the comment period closed in late April, after being extended at the request of NCBA, the agency had received more than 800 comments. USDA has not yet issued a final rule on its proposal for Brazil.  

The second proposal, which was issued in late August, would allow the importation chilled or frozen beef from a region in Argentina. APHIS says beef from the region could safely be imported into the United States based on the findings of five site visits in Argentina, most recently in 2013. Shortly before issuing the import proposal, USDA APHIS added the region to the list of FMD and rinderpest free areas, which will allow the importation of ruminant and ruminant commodities from the region into the United States.

As originally proposed, APHIS will accept comments until October 28. However, NCBA, joined this time by the American Veterinary Medical Association, American Association of Bovine Practitioners and the Academy of Veterinary Consultants, has requested a 120-day extension on the comment period to allow time to fully review the proposal and the nearly 80 supporting documents and provide science-based comments to USDA.

Kristina Butts, NCBA executive director of legislative affairs, recently said the organization worked with third-party scientists to review the Brazil beef proposal and intends to do the same with the Argentina beef proposal.

NCBA and the veterinary groups are not alone in raising concerns – members of Congress are weighing in as well.

First, led by Representative Ted Yoho (R-Fla.), a group of lawmakers including Reps. Lucas (R-Okla.), chair of the House Agriculture Committee; Sessions (R-Texas), chair of the House Rules Committee; Crawford(R- Ark.); Costa (D- Cali.); and Schrader (D-Ore.), sent a letter asking USDA to stop any progress on the Brazil beef proposal until the Government Accountability Office (GAO) takes a harder look at the methodology used to develop the proposal.

 Reps. Yoho and Schrader are veterinarians by trade.

“While we are staunch advocates for open markets and free trade, we will not ignore the fact that unfettered access of these products has the potential to cause significant harm to our domestic food supply,” the letter states. “Until a timely and independent study can be conducted on the methodology and management controls of the APHIS site visits to the exporting country to verify the animal health data, we shall not abide risking our nation’s food supply, health, and economy.”

The second letter came from a bipartisan group of lawmakers from Texas. Rep. Pete Sessions spearheaded the effort calling on the GAO to conduct a study on the proposed rules related to Brazil and Argentina.

Butts also said Canada and Mexico have weighed in with USDA on the proposals, raising concerns about the risk of introducing FMD into North America.

While NCBA is supportive of trade, Butts says it must be trade based on sound science. She says the organization appreciates face-to-face meetings it has had with USDA on the proposals, but that NCBA will continue to push back.

“When you’re looking at certain parts of the world that have struggled with FMD, we do not want to jeopardize the health of our domestic herd,” she says. “We have strong concerns on the lack of safeguards that Brazil and Argentina can put in place just to make sure that disease is not brought into the United States. So we’re going to do everything we can to continue to push back against USDA’s proposals.”