On August 28, 2014 the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) of USDA opened a 60-day comment period on a proposed rule to allow fresh beef imports from Northern Argentina, which is the areas north of Patagonia in the southern part of the country. APHIS also announced that Patagonia was now eligible to export fresh and frozen beef to the U.S.  This is an ongoing issue with no end in sight.

Argentina is recognized by the OIE (World Organization for Animal Health) as being free of foot and mouth disease (FMD) with vaccination and certain zones are free of FMD with or without vaccination.  Argentina has access to most markets with exports to more than 80 countries in 2013.  The U.S. closed its market to Argentine fresh beef in 2001 after a widespread FMD outbreak.  The U.S. imports primarily frozen cooked beef from Argentina. According to the U.S. Agricultural Attaché in Argentina, shipments have dropped dramatically in the last two years because the few local plants producing those products prefer to export from plants in Brazil.  Currently, only one plant continues to export small volumes.  FMD is a highly contagious and economically devastating animal disease.  Northern

Argentina as a region is not recognized as being free of FMD by APHIS because FMD vaccination is currently practiced in this area.  In January of this year, APHIS withdrew a 2007 proposed rule to allow beef imports from the Patagonia South region.  It had generated significant backlashes from members of Congress and producer groups.  APHIS withdrew the rule because it changed the way it recognizes the animal health status of regions that seek to export meat to the U.S.  APHIS found that the two Patagonian regions were free of FMD and do not need to vaccinate for the disease, which provides a lower risk than the rest of the country that still vaccinates.  Argentina is considered to have the necessary infrastructure to deal with a potential outbreak.  APHIS describes the risk to U.S. animals as being “very low.”

The original closing date for comments on the proposed rule for fresh beef imports from Northern Argentina was recently extended from October 28 to December 29 to allow for additional comments and responses to earlier comments.

The WTO’s Agreement on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures recognizes WTO members’ rights to adopt regulations to protect human, animal, or plant life or health, but also requires members to ensure regulations are not simply protectionism.  Regionalization is recognized as part of an internationally acceptable plan.  If a country has several production regions and some of those regions are disease-free, exports can continue from the disease-free regions.  Under WTO rules, the U.S. has a commitment to import beef from the disease-free regions of Argentina if it can do so while keeping the U.S. cattle herd disease free.

Consumers around the world have a stake in keeping the U.S. cattle herd healthy.  According to the Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) of USDA, for 2014 the U.S. is projected to be the world’s largest producer of beef at 11.1 million metric tons (MMT), ahead of number two Brazil at 9.9 MMT.  The U.S. is expected to be the number four exporter at 1.2 MMT, 12 percent of world trade.

Argentina has challenged the U.S. ban on fresh and frozen beef at the WTO. It asserts the ban, along with the U.S.’s failure thus far to recognize the Patagonia region as free of FMD, violates WTO rules.  A dispute settlement panel has been composed. At a September hearing of the panel, the U.S. government stated that the August action on Patagonia addressed one of the Argentine government’s concerns.  The U.S. also explained that a detailed risk assessment of Northern Argentina had been completed and makes clear how trade in products from Northern Argentina would meet the U.S. level of protection.  These actions refute Argentina’s earlier allegations that the U.S. rules process is a regulatory “black hole” that will restrict trade in perpetuity.  The U.S. went on to argue that the critical issue under the WTO SPS Agreement is what happens when “an exporting Member claims either that its territory, in whole or in part, is free of disease, or that it is of low disease prevalence in relation to a disease of concern to an importing Member?”

That is the critical issue for export market development.  The U.S. finds itself on both sides of the issue.  As the largest consumer market, countries like Argentina want access to the U.S. market.  At the same time, U.S. producers look to China and India for market opportunities.  The answer is easy – strict transparency and the adherence to sound science for all animal health decisions large and small.  But that is easier said than done when the science is less than clear, either because of the science itself is unclear or how it is administered.

Two major points come to mind in the U.S.-Argentina situation.

The first is an issue with the OIE and APHIS.  The OIE sees vaccination as a solution to contain large outbreaks of the disease, while APHIS sees vaccination as the source of the disease where it is not prevalent.  No vaccination reduces risk in Patagonia according to APHIS and vaccination reduces risk in Northern Argentina according to OIE.  They may both be right in certain circumstances, but they have to get together without compromising animal health for U.S. producers and not restricting markets for Argentina.

The other issue is between U.S. producers and APHIS.  The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) is concerned about the health of the nation’s beef herd by allowing imports of beef from Argentina.  NCBA questions the integrity of the entire risk analysis because of the lack of documentation and management controls for the site review process.  Good science-based decisions are not likely from an uncertain process.  Whether this is just a misunderstanding or something deeper, it needs to be addressed.   The political process is not likely to allow this change in import policy if the domestic industry sees substantial threats to its future.  That is as true of other countries as it is in the U.S.

Trade in meat and in other animal products is expected to expand in the coming decade.  That can only happen if the livestock industries in importing and exporting countries believe they operate in a rules-based system built on sound science. Trade officials need to become comfortable with the science because many trade disputes will revolve around it.

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