WASHINGTON – The US Department of Agriculture announced new rules that will open the US market for beef to Argentina and Brazil. The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service is amending its regulations to allow imports of fresh (chilled or frozen) beef from the two South American countries — but only under specific conditions aimed at minimizing the risk of foot-and-mouth disease. The rules take effect 60 days after publication in the Federal Register.

Currently, Brazil exports only processed (or industrialized) meat to the US. From January to May, Brazil exported $139.89 million in beef products to the US. Of that amount, processed beef accounted for $138.81 million while offal accounted for $1.08 million, according to Brazil’s Ministry of Agriculture. Once these rules go into force, the United States will allow imports from:

• Northern Argentina, a region located north of an area previously recognized by APHIS as free of foot and mouth disease (FMD) known as the Patagonia region; and
• 14 states in Brazil, including Bahia, Distrito Federal, Espirito Santo, Goias, Mato Grosso, Mato Grosso do Sul, Minas Gerais, Parana, Rio Grande do Sul, Rio de Janeiro, Rondonia, Sao Paulo, Sergipe, and Tocantis.

APHIS proposed amending its regulations for Brazil in 2013. And the agency added the Patagonia region of Argentina to a list of regions considered free of foot-and-mouth disease and rinderpest in 2014. APHIS made these decisions based on risk assessments and site visits.

“APHIS risk assessments indicate that fresh (chilled or frozen) beef can be safely imported, provided certain conditions are met to ensure beef exported to the United States will not harbor the FMD virus,” the agency said in a statement. “The assessments also concluded that Argentina and Brazil are able to comply with US import certification requirements.

“Fresh beef from both of these regions will follow the same import conditions imposed on fresh beef and ovine meat from Uruguay that we have been safely importing for many years.”

The agency added that Brazil and Argentina must also meet food safety standards before exporting any beef to the US. USDA will review both countries’ regulatory programs in addition to an in-country audit of their food safety systems.

Food & Water Watch, an environmental watchdog group, denounced the move as “sneaking” beef import approvals from Brazil and Argentina. Wenonah Hauter, executive director of the organization, said in a statement that the US has not experienced an outbreak of FMD since 1929. She added that restrictions on imports of fresh beef from Brazil and Argentina have successfully kept the disease out of the US food system. But amending those restrictions is putting US animal herds at risk and “... thumbing its nose at members of Congress who requested that the US Government Accountability Office conduct a study of the two proposed rules. That study has not been completed.”

Hauter went on to say that “Brazil and Argentina have checkered food safety records, as USDA has been forced on several occasions to suspend imports of products currently eligible to come into the US for various food safety violations and for failure to meet our inspection standards.

“The lifted restrictions on imports from Brazil and Argentina follow a disturbing trend of lowering food import standards, established by the recent attempt to gut Country of Origin Labeling, in order to pander to the interests of the corporate meatpackers lobby,” Hauter concluded.

Still, Agriculture Minister Katia Abreu said the opening of the US market to Brazilian beef is an opportunity to intensify negotiations and expand trade with other countries — such as Saudi Arabia, Japan and China — that had suspended imports of beef from Brazil.

Abreu is traveling to Japan this week. It is expected Japan will allow imports of processed meat. Meanwhile, Japan may sell its beef to Brazil. Talks with officials in Saudi Arabia are winding down. Auditors from Saudi Arabia visited beef and poultry processing facilities.

Chinese auditors are reviewing 13 beef, poultry and pork processing facilities. China suspended its embargo on Brazilian beef earlier this year.