A suggestion made this week by US president Donald Trump that his country should consider banning live cattle imports surprised many across the US beef industry, and has been dismissed by the National Cattlemens Beef Association.
The president’s comment came in the wake of widespread US meat processing plant closures due to COVID-19 over the past month, causing a dramatic buildup of grainfed cattle ready for slaughter. Thousands of workers at US meat plants have fallen ill with coronavirus, prompting a drop in slaughtering that left some American ranchers without a market for their animals.
Slaughter capacity in the US has been reduced by 35-40pc in recent weeks, causing a log-jam of around 1.5 million cattle by mid-year, and a dramatic decline in livestock value as a result.
President Trump on Tuesday said the US should consider ‘terminating’ trade deals that obligate the country to import live cattle. He made the comments while announcing a $19 billion coronavirus-related US farm bailout.
“There are some countries that are sending us cattle for many years and I think we should look at terminating,” he said. “We’re very self-sufficient (in beef) and we’re becoming more and more self-sufficient,” he said.
The US imports about two million feeder cattle and slaughter cattle from neighbouring both Canada and Mexico each year, but in turn sells them hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of grainfed meat. It is estimated that less than five percent of cattle slaughtered in the US each year are born in either Canada or Mexico, which trade with the US under the North American Free Trade Agreement and the recently-renegotiated US/Mexico free trade deal.
“It was something I wish the president hadn’t said,” said the president of the US National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, Marty Smith, who attended the announcement. He said the suggestion may have resulted from a misunderstanding.
The NCBA yesterday issued a statement in response to President Trump’s comments
“Today’s comment by President Trump demonstrates the complexity of the US beef business,” NCBA chief executive Colin Woodall said.
Live cattle imports to the US only come from Canada and Mexico, and will continue to do so under the terms of the President’s newly negotiated USMCA. America has not imported live cattle from other nations for several years,” he said.
“However, if President Trump is serious about reconsidering import decisions, NCBA and its members strongly request the White House to take another look at his decision to allow fresh beef imports from nations like Brazil, where there continue to be concerns with Foot & Mouth Disease and USDA’s decision to reopen the American market to Brazilian beef,” Mr Woodall said.
“Beef trade is a complex business, and America’s cattle producers rely on safe and reliable international trading partners, both as a destination for the undervalued cuts we produce here, such as hearts, tongues, and livers, and for importation of lean trim for ground beef production to meet strong consumer demand.”
Australia is the largest exporter of lean trimmings and manufacturing beef to the US, last year totalling close to 252,000t.
About 12 percent of all beef consumed in the US is imported product, but that product must meet the US standards for safety before it is allowed into the market, Mr Woodall said.
“President Trump has shown his willingness to negotiate difficult trade deals and take on tough trading partners, and NCBA thanks him for the attention he has given to beef.
“We encourage him to re-examine the decision to reopen the market to imports from Brazil, Namibia, and any other nation where there are food safety or animal health concerns that could impact American consumers or cattle producers,” he said.
“A re-evaluation of those imports can accomplish his goals of protecting both American cattle producers and American consumer confidence in our own beef supply chain.”
Another US beef industry lobby group applauded president Trump’s suggestion.
“We’re keenly interested in knowing exactly what it means,” said Bill Bullard, chief executive officer of Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America.
Mr Bullard said he was concerned because the president had qualified his comments, suggesting he would allow continued imports from ‘allies’.
“Those imports do displace domestically produced US cattle and have become an even greater problem as slaughterhouses close or reduce production because of coronavirus outbreaks among employees,” he said.
The group said the USMCA failed to properly protect American ranchers.
Meat packers in the US northwest relied on imports of Canadian cattle to maintain their efficiency and feedlot utilisation rates, said Brian Perillat, from the market analysis division of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association.
Last year, Canada exported 11pc of its fed cattle to the US where they are processed into prime cuts of beef, Mr Perillat said. An additional 20pc of the nation’s cows and bulls were sent to US processing plants to produce manufacturing beef.
Earlier this month, another cattle group, the US Cattlemen’s Association, asked the Trump administration to get US packers to give preference to US-bred cattle over imported animals.
“A wartime effort is needed to continue putting American food on American plates during these historic times,” USCA President Brooke Miller said in a May 6 letter to Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue.
“To that effect, we ask that the US Department of Agriculture work with meatpackers to ensure preference is given to procuring cattle that have been born and raised in the US.”
“The industry is facing nearly five weeks of backlogs and slowdowns, with less than 500,000 federally inspected cattle being slaughtered each week,” the May 6 letter said.
“For every week that this occurs, it is estimated that 150,000 to 240,000 cattle will be carried forward … To restore balance in the marketplace, US meatpackers should prioritise slaughtering and processing domestic cattle before imported cattle or beef.”
Oswaldo Chazaro, head of the Mexican cattle confederation CNOG, said while he respected Mr Trump’s opinion, many years had been spent developing an integrated beef market in which all consumers benefited.
“More thought should be given to keeping this healthy, balanced trade in both directions,” he said. About 1.2 million Mexican cattle were sold to US buyers last year, while Mexican firms are buying growing volumes of US beef.