WASHINGTON – The executive director of Food & Water Watch, Wenonah Hauter, claims the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is “sneaking” beef import approvals from Brazil and Argentina.

Food & Water Watch is an environmental watchdog group that “champions healthy food and clean water for all.” Hauter said in a statement that “as has become a common practice by the Obama Administration, the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) transmitted to the White House Office of Management (OMB) and Budget over a federal holiday weekend two major final rules that would open up imports of fresh beef products from Brazil and Argentina, hoping that no one was paying attention. These final rules were sent to OMB on Friday, May 22, but not posted on its website until Saturday, May 23.”

What is significant about these two final rules is that they would relax a longstanding ban by APHIS from allowing fresh beef imports from countries that have a history of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) in their animal herds, Hauter continued. “The US has not had a case of FMD in cattle since 1929. Food & Water Watch and number of livestock groups have already expressed their opposition to this relaxation of the FMD policy,” Hauter added.

Last November, Meat+Poultry reported that APHIS agreed to extend the comment period on a proposed rule to allow imports of beef from Argentina through Dec. 29.

“We appreciate USDA extending the comment period on their proposed rule for importing freshly chilled or frozen beef from Argentina into the United States,” Sen. John Hoeven said in a statement at the time. “It is important to ensure that all stakeholders have sufficient time to review and assess any impacts these imports may have on our livestock industry.”

Last August, APHIS announced plans to add the Patagonia Region of Argentina to its list of regions considered free of FMD and rinderpest. But industry stakeholders in the US beef industry said APHIS’ plan is flawed and put the health and welfare of US cattle herds at risk. Sens. Hoeven and Amy Klobuchar wrote to USDA urging the agency to extend the comment period "to ensure the rule is properly assessed" given Argentina's history of FMD cases.

Hauter said Brazil and Argentina have a checkered food safety history with the meat products that they are already eligible to export to the US. “USDA has been forced to suspend imports from these two countries over the past decade for food safety violations and for violating inspection standards,” he added.

Hauter noted that the new final rules “come on the heels of the World Trade Organization ruling that found USDA’s country of origin labeling regulations to be impediments to free trade. Consequently, consumers may not know at the meat counter whether the products they buy come from countries that have had a history of animal health and/or food safety problems.”