WASHINGTON – A hearing on Capitol Hill represented an opportunity for stakeholders in the meat and poultry industries to detail for lawmakers the challenges facing producers — diminished export markets, labor shortages and animal disease topped the list of witness testimony given July 16 before members of the House Livestock and Foreign Agriculture Subcommittee.

Producers are feeling the pressure. David Herring, president of the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC), spoke to the subcommittee members about challenges at home and abroad that weigh on the pork industry despite significant growth. He noted that pork “…is an attractive candidate for trade retaliation” because of the US pork industry’s position as the leading global exporter. And while Mexico lifted tariffs on pork in response to the United States lifting tariffs on metal, the US trade war with China has become the most damaging threat.

“China holds more potential than any other market in the world for increased US pork sales,” Herring said. “There is an unprecedented sales opportunity for US pork producers in China as that country continues to battle the spread of ASF and experiences a major reduction in domestic production.”

Estimates of losses to China’s swineherd due to African Swine Fever range from 25 percent to 35 percent — while extreme losses of more than 50 percent are expected to be limited to confined areas. In April, concerns about the spread of ASF prompted NPPC to cancel the World Pork Expo this year. US producers would have been the most likely candidate to fill China’s supply gap.

“Were it not for the retaliatory duties on US pork, we would be in an ideal position to meet China’s need for increased pork imports and single handedly put a huge dent in the US trade imbalance with China too,” Herring said. “Instead, this trade opportunity is fueling jobs, profits and rural development for our competitors. We seek an end to the trade dispute with China and the restoration of more favorable access to the world’s largest pork-consuming nation.”

Herring added that the European Union and other countries that signed on to the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) continue to make inroads in Japan’s market for pork. Herring warned that “We are going to continue to hemorrhage market share unless we quickly get the same market access our competitors have in Japan. We know the administration is engaged in trade negotiations with Japan, but those negotiations can’t move quickly enough as far as we are concerned.”

Producers in the pork and beef industries also called on Congress to ratify the US-Mexico-Canada trade agreement (USMCA).

“Mexico and Canada, combined, buy $2 billion in US beef products every single year. That’s nearly a quarter of all US beef exports each year and accounts for $69 of those $300 realized by US producers as a result of trade,” said Kelley Sullivan Georgiades, a cattle producer from Crockett and Navasota, Texas, representing the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association at the hearing. “USMCA keeps the good aspects of NAFTA — unrestricted, duty-free access for U.S. beef and cattle — and does not attempt to incorporate failed policies from the past, like mandatory country of origin labeling.

“Failure to maintain free trade with Mexico and Canada would be devastating to cattle producers, and it has also left other trade breakthroughs pending,” Georgiades said.

Labor pains

Livestock and poultry producers also are calling for an immigration policy that will ease labor shortages that have hit the agriculture industry hard. John Zimmerman, a Minnesota turkey grower and National Turkey Federation executive committee member, previously had testified before the committee three years ago about the need for immigration reform.

“Most turkey plants are located in rural, low-unemployment areas,” Zimmerman explained. “To fully staff these plants, producers must recruit from outside of their local areas and in many instances must rely on immigrant labor.

“Existing guest worker programs target only seasonal, on-farm labor and non-agricultural manufacturing,” he continued. “We need workers in our plants year-round, and we stand ready to work with any and all parties to achieve a workable system. The turkey industry hopes that Washington can put the rhetoric aside and find a solution.”

Herring said the NPPC’s focus is on support for expansion of the H-2A program to non-seasonal agricultural workers, in addition to the US Dept. of Agriculture assuming oversight responsibilities for the program from the Dept. of Labor.

Disease prevention

Concerns were raised about animal diseases such as ASF and highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI).

Herring told the subcommittee the NPPC is advocating for strengthened biosecurity at US borders, including funding for an additional 600 US Customs and Border Protection Agricultural Inspectors.

“The most likely path for a foreign animal disease to enter the country would be through the importation of infected animals or contaminated products,” Herring said. “We are also pushing US Customs and Border Protection to work with shipment companies to strengthen safeguards against illegal product shipments and advocating for the maintenance or increase of airline ticket and cargo fees to help fund the increase in inspectors.”

Zimmerman said the poultry industry is waiting for implementation of the mandatory National Animal Disease Preparedness and Response Program included in the Farm Bill. “We need to stay focused on targeted efforts, in both monitoring and rapid response, that reduce the ability of foreign disease to gain a foothold in this country, devastate our industries and wreck trade markets,” he added.