WASHINGTON, D.C. – Federal officials did not sufficiently assess the risk posed by a devastating cattle disease when they recently decided to allow beef imports from Paraguay, according to agriculture officials of several top beef-producing states.
A new U.S. Department of Agriculture rule that ended a 25-year prohibition on those imports went into effect Thursday.
The prohibition was the result of the South American country’s struggles to eradicate foot-and-mouth disease, a much-feared affliction that is highly contagious and has the potential to cause huge losses for livestock producers. The USDA estimates that a severe outbreak in the United States has the potential to cost more than $200 billion.
The viral disease causes blisters to form in the mouths and on the feet of infected cattle. It is not often fatal to adult animals but can lessen their food consumption and limit their movement. It does not infect humans.
The disease was eradicated in the United States nearly 100 years ago, according to the USDA. The worst outbreak of the disease was in 1914, when 22 states were quarantined and more than 170,000 cattle and other livestock were destroyed to contain the virus. The virus can infect a range of animals with divided hooves.
Imports of those animals and their meat is generally prohibited from countries where the disease circulates. Paraguay’s last known outbreak of the disease was about a decade ago, but the USDA does not consider the country free of the disease because its cattle are still routinely vaccinated against it.
The USDA analyzed the risks to domestic livestock posed by the import of chilled or frozen beef from Paraguay — at the country’s request to allow those imports — and proposed a rule to allow the imports in March. That rule was officially codified last month and is now in effect.
“Our risk analysis concluded that the overall risk associated with importing fresh beef from Paraguay is low and that Paraguay has the infrastructure and emergency response capabilities needed to effectively report, contain, and eradicate (the disease) in the event of an outbreak and to do so in a timely manner,” the USDA wrote in regard to the new rule.
The rule has requirements that the disease has not been detected in the country for at least a year and that the cattle are inspected before and after slaughter for signs of the illness.
Beef groups dispute USDA risk analysis
But beef industry groups and some federal lawmakers have opposed the change, claiming that the risk analysis was based on outdated information. They say the USDA’s last visit to Paraguay was more than nine years ago.
The department did not immediately respond to a request to comment for this article. It’s risk analysis included information provided in recent years by Paraguay.
This week, Iowa’s Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig and officials from seven other states asked Tom Vilsack, the U.S. agriculture secretary, to halt the change and review the risks further.
“While we are strong proponents of robust trade, we must do so in a manner that does not put our livestock producers at risk,” Naig and the others wrote in a letter to Vilsack. “We urge USDA to consider pausing the implementation of this rule until a more reliable risk assessment can be completed based on modern visits in Paraguay.”
Ag officials in Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas and Wyoming also signed the letter.
Cattlemen claim beef decision based on diplomacy goals
The letter mimicked the criticism that has been leveled for months by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. The association has alleged that the conclusions of the USDA’s risk analysis were pre-determined by government officials who wish to bolster international relations with the country.
“While winning friends and allies in South America may be part of the long-term interests of U.S. diplomacy, it should not be done on the backs of U.S. cattle producers or by putting at risk the health and livelihood of the safest and most efficient cattle and beef production system in the world,” Kent Bacus, an executive of the association, said in a press release last month.
Paraguay is a key U.S. ally in South America, a continent where federal officials have worried about China’s growing influence. Beef is one of Paraguay’s major exports.
Congresswoman Maria Salazar, a Florida Republican, called Paraguay “the region’s most reliably pro-American country” in a recent letter to President Joe Biden about an unrelated matter.
“At a time when so many countries in Latin America are enhancing their ties with China, Paraguay insists on keeping its strong relationship with the United States,” she wrote.
But some federal lawmakers fear that beef imports from Paraguay are too risky. This month, Sens. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat, and Mike Rounds, a South Dakota Republican, introduced legislation to suspend the imports.
Also this month, U.S. Rep. Randy Feenstra, an Iowa Republican, joined 13 colleagues in a letter to Vilsack that sought to delay the imports amid further review of the safety risks.
“By allowing countries like Paraguay — where foot-and-mouth disease remains prevalent — to sell their beef in the United States, we unnecessarily threaten our domestic herds with disease and jeopardize the financial wellbeing of cattle producers and their families,” Feenstra said last week.
Feenstra did not elaborate on why he believes the disease is prevalent in Paraguay, and his spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request to comment.