THE comment period has closed for a U.S. Department of Agriculture proposal to allow the importation of beef from several states in Brazil with a history of unresolved foot and mouth disease (FMD).
The rule, originally introduced in December, would permit beef imports from 14 states in Brazil. USDA's Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) extended the comment period deadline until April 22 so industry members could thoroughly review the implications of the rule.
According to USDA, the proposed regulation changes would allow imports of chilled or frozen beef while continuing to protect the U.S. from an introduction of FMD. However, concerns remain, stemming largely from whether Brazil is willing to put the protocols in place to ensure that FMD is not introduced into the U.S.
Collin Woodall, vice president of government affairs at the National Cattlemen's Beef Assn. (NCBA), said his group has undergone an extensive review process evaluating the APHIS proposal but still has many unanswered questions.
Many of the documents for the proposal are in Portuguese, which has added to the confusion. In addition, NCBA filed Freedom of Information Act requests with APHIS and the Food Safety & Inspection Service to better understand the reasoning in the rule process, but it said it has not received the documentation.
In its comments, NCBA asked APHIS to provide an additional 120 days to continue to examine the proposal and hopefully receive the documents it requested.
Woodall said NCBA also asked APHIS to completely withdraw the rule and do a more in-depth risk assessment and economic assessment, which he said did not seem thorough enough in its present form.
"We're not placing our domestic herd at risk just to get this rule across the goal line," Woodall said.
FMD is a devastating disease that can be spread via fresh and frozen products. Woodall said if the U.S. were to have a domestic case of FMD, it could cost $5 billion in lost beef exports due to market closures. In addition, the financial impact of depopulation that comes with trying to limit FMD exposure would cripple the industry and could result in losses of up to $50 billion.
The National Farmers Union (NFU) also voiced opposition to the rule and asked that the ban be maintained. The group's comments cited a 2002 study that found that if an epidemic similar to the FMD outbreak that occurred in the U.K. in 2001 were to strike the U.S., it would result in a loss of $14 billion in farm income (in 2002 U.S. dollars). This includes costs of animal quarantine and eradication, a ban on exports and reduced consumer confidence.
In addition, the disease could spread to any cloven-hoofed animals, endangering other domestic livestock like sheep or pigs as well as wild deer and antelope that form the basis of the U.S. hunting industry.
NFU said inconsistencies between animal health disclosures reported by APHIS and the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) "erode our confidence in the safety of beef imports from countries with a history of FMD presence and a poor food safety record."
FDA recalled cooked and canned meat from Brazil on three occasions in 2010 due to drug contamination, NFU noted.
NFU's comments also said Brazil has not been able to prevent the spread of FMD across its borders from neighboring countries, and as recently as 2011, Paraguay reported two outbreaks of FMD within 250 miles of the border with Brazil.
The last case of FMD in the 14-state region under consideration for the APHIS rule occurred in 2001, and those states are considered "FMD free" by OIE.