The Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) of USDA recently announced that it has created a Never Fed Beta Agonist Program under its Quality Systems Verification Program (QSVP).  It will confirm to customers that U.S. beef and pork meat covered by the program is derived from animals that were never fed beta agonists and free of residue.

The Never Fed Beta Agonist Program was created in response to Russia closing its market to U.S. meat in February by banning imports of meat grown using the growth-promoting beta agonist ractopamine.  USDA reportedly told Russian officials in late June that such a program would be developed.  USDA does not consider beta agonists to be a food safety issues because the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has determined them to be safe when used as directed.  Last year the international standards-setting Codex Alimentarius Commission approved maximum-residue levels for ractopamine in beef and pork.

The Never Fed Beta Agonist Program is available to companies that produce livestock, beef and pork products by submitting marketing programs to the Livestock, Poultry and Seed Program for verification and monitoring.  Companies who wish to be approved can meet the requirements through the Process Verified Program (PVP) or the Quality System Assessment (QSA) Program.

The standards of Codex have provided important reference points for the dispute settlement mechanism of the WTO.  Russia has been a member of the WTO for a year and could have had a case brought against it by the U.S.  Even if the U.S. filed a WTO case and won, there is no guarantee that Russia would change policies.  The Codex Commission approved the standards for ractopamine by a narrow margin and China, the EU and some other countries do not recognize the standard.

A March 2013 analysis by the U.S. Meat Export Federation (USMEF) provided some estimates of U.S. market impacts of the ban.  In 2012 Russia imported $566 million of U.S. beef and pork.  Most of that trade was in a few items for which Russian buyers paid a premium over other possible buyers.  Loss of the Russian market depressed overall U.S. prices for those items.  The net impact on those markets is thought to be about $800 million, about one-third higher than the actual size of the Russian market.  In March that was roughly $15 per head for cattle and $4 per head for hogs.

USDA is faced with a dilemma.  When USDA Food Safety Inspection Service officials address Codex issues, they focus on sound science and do not worry about production and marketing issues.  USDA personnel in AMS or the Foreign Agricultural Service are involved with programs that help U.S. commodities compete in the world marketplace where consumers can choose what they buy.  These are two radically different roles to play and conflict is not new.

In 2008, scientific knowledge and international guidelines confirmed that deboned skeletal muscle beef from cattle 30 months and older could be freely traded because of a negligible risk of BSE transmission.  Despite the science, USDA agreed to re‐open Korea’s market to U.S. beef and beef products with the understanding that U.S. exporters would ‘voluntarily’ limit imports of beef to animals less than 30 months of age.  That accommodation allowed almost $600 million of U.S. beef to move last year to a key market.

In May 2009, the U.S. and EU provisionally agreed to resolve a 1998 WTO ruling won by the U.S. on beef raised with growth‐promoting hormones.  Despite the ruling that U.S. beef was safe, the EU had refused to allow greater market access.  The 2009 understanding provided additional duty‐free access to the EU market for high-quality U.S. beef produced from cattle that have not been raised with growth‐promoting hormones.  That was far short of what the U.S. wanted, but better than the access the U.S. received in the previous ten years.

USDA also has a ‘Pork for the EU Program’ that verifies that U.S. pork has not been produced using ractopamine.  The pork must also be tested in a laboratory to verify the absence of ractopamine residue.  All this is inconsistent with sound science and costly, but it allows U.S. pork to enter the EU.

The USTR and USDA must continue to push for trade agreements based on sound science, but an alternative ought to be pursued when that is not viable in specific markets after years of failed efforts.  The Russian government has made it clear it will continue to pursue protectionist trade policies even though it is now a member of the WTO.  That is a fact of life in agriculture and in other industries.

These attempts at commercially workable alternatives to regulations based on sound science do have a downside alluded to in the USMEF analysis.  These feed additives that improve feed efficiency and improve daily rate of gain make livestock production more sustainable.  Not only does the amount of feed needed per pound of meat directly produced decline, but hogs and cattle that can be grown to heavier weight and still maintain the proper meat to fat ratio reduce the number of mother cows and sows needed per ton of finished meat.  Making meat more sustainable requires the adoption of new technology, not simply the maintenance of old ways.

One alternative is for USDA to remove itself from the business of being a third party verifier of practices of value chains and turn that over private to companies with that expertise.  That might not be viable in countries like Russia were the rule of law has weaknesses and private companies take advantage of those weaknesses. USDA may be able to learn from FDA’s efforts to recognize foreign government agencies and private companies that would accredit third-party auditors of foreign food facilities under the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2010.

It remains to be seen how Russia will react to this latest U.S. initiative.  Regardless of the outcome, it will not be the last time this issue is addressed.  The last paragraph of the USMEF analysis in March summed it up, “if we are going to succeed in a very competitive global market, we are likely to be faced with some difficult decisions.  Some of these decisions could require compromises that none of us like, but increasingly we are learning that this is an inevitable consequence of participating in a growing, lucrative and complicated global market.”

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.