The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) of USDA has issued a final rule that will align the agency’s import regulations for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) with international standards.  The regulations are based        on the actual risk of animals or products harboring the disease, while protecting U.S. cattle producers and consumers from introduction of BSE.  This comes after a ten-year effort to make U.S. import rules consistent with world standards.  APHIS has been restricting imports to control BSE since 1989.

The timing of the release is no chance occurrence.  The final rule, when it takes effect in 90 days, will reopen the U.S. market to beef from the EU.  The EU considers it a confidence-building measure as talks begin on the wide ranging Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) trade agreement.  The U.S. had banned beef from EU countries since 1998 after repeated outbreaks of BSE beginning in the UK in 1986. The World Organization for Animal Health (known as the OIE) recognizes major EU beef-exporting countries such as Ireland as having a “controlled risk” of BSE, the same status the U.S. held until it was lowered by OIE to “negligible risk” earlier this year.

The EU Commission reacted positively to the announcement, but noted that it was much delayed.  The OIE, the WTO recognized standards-setting body for animal health under the Sanitary and Phyto-Sanitary (SPS) Agreement, had established new standards for beef trade in 2005 under which U.S. beef reentered the export market after the discovery of BSE in the U.S. in December 2003.  Deboned skeletal muscle beef is safe and can be freely traded from all countries because scientific knowledge and international guidelines show that boneless beef presents a negligible risk of BSE transmission.  The OIE has evaluated the BSE risk status of individual EU countries and almost all have the same or better risk status than most countries in the world. The EU Commission believes the USDA action sends a signal worldwide that EU beef is safe.

In general, USDA will use the OIE’s categories and criteria to determine the BSE risk of countries wanting to export cattle and products to the U.S.  APHIS will have the option of accepting the OIE country risk assessment or conducting its own if deemed appropriate.  The rule allows APHIS to have the final authority to determine what is in the country’s best interest. The risk classification of a country would determine the necessary restrictions on imports.

This action just ahead of the trade talks does not imply that the new rule is not based on sound science.  APHIS has laboriously gone through all comments on the latest proposed rule and early versions to ensure that concerns had been addressed.  It had to address trade protectionist who opposed allowing beef imports for business competition reasons and food safety concerns raised about previous production practices in the EU.  The beginning of talks on TTIP did make developing the final rules a priority issue.

While the beginning of trade talks with the EU pushed the final rule forward, the U.S. industry will also benefit from having the rule.  After being behind in beef trade policy in recent years, the U.S. government and private exporters will be in full compliance on international standards for beef.  The U.S. government can continue to push other countries to comply with the same international standards.

APHIS notes that other government agencies are also involved in safeguards against BSE in the nation’s food supply.  The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has a ruminant-to-ruminant feed ban to protect cattle health.  A BSE surveillance program monitors the health of the U.S. cattle population.  The Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) of USDA protects human health by banning from the food supply cattle materials that have been shown to carry the BSE agent (known as specified risk materials).  FSIS also ensures that countries exporting beef to the U.S. have inspection processes equivalent to the U.S. system.

The U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) and USDA can now concentrate their efforts on other importing countries to adopt the OIE guidelines and science-based BSE policies.  The objective the WTO SPS Agreement is to facilitate trade by harmonizing

WTO Members’ SPS measures on as wide a basis as possible.  For example, the U.S. has had a disagreement with the EU since the mid-1990s on its ban on beef derived from U.S. cattle treated with certain growth-promoting hormones.  The U.S. won a WTO case on the science, but the EU has refused to change policies.  The U.S. has in recent years shared with other exporter an increased duty-free import quota for the EU for hormone-free beef, but the underlying issue remains unresolved.

According to the USTR’s 2013 Report on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures released in March, many countries continue to have BSE-related import restrictions.  Argentina bans imports of all U.S. live cattle, beef, and beef products.  The U.S. has engaged the Australian and Brazilian regulatory processes, but has not been granted access to those markets.  USTR and USDA senior officials have repeatedly met with Chinese officials on BSE, but the market remains closed to all U.S. beef.  Indonesia only permits access for boneless beef from cattle less than 30 months of age.  This combined with a restrictive import licensing scheme has resulted in the closure of the market.

Japan, the largest U.S. beef market, restricts access to beef from animals less than 30 months old, but is considering adopting the international standard.  In Korea, U.S. exporters ‘voluntarily’ restrict U.S. beef and beef products from animals less than 30 months of age.  Mexico continues to ban beef from animals over 30 months of age.  Russia only accepts boneless and bone-in beef from animals less than 30 months old, bans all ground beef and its sanitary certificate for prepared meat effectively preclude any U.S. cooked beef.  Saudi Arabia has banned all U.S. beef since 2012.  A host of smaller countries have similar bans on U.S. beef imports.

The market for high-valued cuts of beef should be a good candidate for exporting and importing countries to adhere to international standards to harmonize trade.  While the potential presence of BSE has made trade policy more difficult, in the long-run it may encourage countries to become comfortable with science-based standards as the only way to work out of a patchwork of regulations that only benefits those groups pursuing protectionist trade policies and drives up costs for producers and consumers.

Ross Korves is a Trade and Economic Policy Analyst with Truth About Trade & Technology ( Follow us: @TruthAboutTrade on Twitter | Truth About Trade & Technology on Facebook.