DENVER – The US Meat Export Federation (USMEF) announced two awards that will be handed out during its Strategic Planning Conference in Oklahoma City in November.

Ambassador Robert Lighthizer, who led the Office of the US Trade Representative during the Trump administration, was selected for the Michael J. Mansfield Award. USMEF created this award in recognition of the US Senate majority leader and ambassador to Japan, whose five decades of government service advanced US trade relations worldwide. 

“I’m truly honored to receive the Michael J. Mansfield Award,” Lighthizer said. “I’ve known some of the other recipients, and they all did a great job for this country. We worked closely with USMEF through several negotiations and hopefully did a good job for the people USMEF represents. I’m grateful for the 20-hour days we get from our farmers and ranchers, and the reality is, when they are successful, America is more successful.”

The other major award, the USMEF Distinguished Service Award, will be given to Leann Saunders, co-founder of Where Food Comes From. The recognition honors outstanding figures in the red meat industry who demonstrate the exceptional individual dedication responsible for the federation’s success.

During his time at USTR, Lighthizer helped organize key trade agreements that expanded US red meat prospects. This included the Phase One Economic and Trade Agreement with China, which achieved access to US beef for the first time in the post-BSE era and lowered trade barriers for US pork. 

“In the case of China, President Trump took very strong actions to try to begin to rebalance that relationship,” Lighthizer said. “In the final analysis, farmers, ranchers and agribusiness hung in there with the president, and we ended up with a really good deal. I think Phase One was a historic agreement for a lot of reasons, but certainly one of them was what it accomplished for the meat industry.” 

Lighthizer also led the negotiation of the US-Japan Trade Agreement, which lowered tariffs for US pork and beef, giving American customers more opportunities in the highly competitive Japanese market.  

“When I spoke to people about the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), they told me it basically came down to increasing agricultural sales to Japan,” Lighthizer explained. “And that’s really what we did in the Japan agreement. We got almost all the benefits of TPP, but without having to pay the price in other sectors.” 

Other trade accomplishments for Lighthizer included the ratification of the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) and overseeing the effort to establish a US-specific allocation of the European Union’s duty-free beef quota, securing more reliable, year-round access for US beef in the high-value EU market. 

For the Distinguished Service Award, Leann Saunders, co-founder of Where Food Comes From Inc., became a leader in food verification and certification and livestock identification and traceability systems. USMEF said IMI Global, a division of Where Food Comes From, was involved in developing these systems that assisted the US beef industry in meeting specific export requirements following the first US case of BSE in 2003. 

Currently, the company’s programs enable ranchers, growers, feeders, packers and processors to meet specific export or private brand label requirements related to production practices. Before taking on this project, Saunders previously worked for PM Beef Holdings, where she developed the first-ever USDA Process Verified Program for US beef and for McDonald’s Corp. and Hudson Foods Corp.

Her connections with USMEF date back to her time as a student at Colorado State University, where Saunders earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees and developed a powerful interest in the global growth potential for US agricultural exports. 

“USMEF holds a dear place in my heart, and has for a very long time,” she said. “As a student, I had some really great mentors in my undergraduate and graduate programs – people like Dr. Gary Smith and Dr. Tom Field who exposed me to the great work USMEF was doing and the support it provides to the beef, pork, lamb and grain industries.” 

Saunders continues to mentor young people in agriculture and promote the next generation of US agricultural leaders. She currently serves on the board of directors for the University of Nebraska’s Engler Agribusiness Entrepreneurship Program and on the Dean’s Advisory Council for the Colorado State University College of Agricultural Sciences. 

“I feel very strongly about giving back, the same way people gave up their time to help put me in a position to succeed,” Saunders said. “There is a lot of excitement about agriculture among young people today, and the international markets are especially intriguing for them. They can learn about what’s happening around the world in a way that supports US agriculture and that supports those who work every day to feed the world in a sustainable manner.” 

Lists of past recipients of the Michael J. Mansfield Award and the USMEF Distinguished Service Award are available from the USMEF website