Imported beef: Hiding in plain sight, hurting U.S. producers

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Fresh air and social distancing — that sounds a lot like the life of a beef farmer, who would seem to be exempt from some of the pressures related to coronavirus and its attendant illness, COVID-19.

But beef farmers are feeling the crunch as intensively as any other industry. However, skittish buyers, whether at restaurants or meat counters, have taken a toll on demand for beef, and beef production is predicted to be 6% higher in the third quarter of 2020, according to BEEF magazine. What’s more, the cash steer price is struggling to climb back from major lows in March, according to the Markets Insider website. Like a good forkful of Kansas City strip, the financial picture is a lot to chew on, but one factor that beef producers are contending with is the nagging problem of imported meat.

As of February of this year, Brazilian beef has been hiding on meat counters in the U.S., joined in April by beef from Namibia. And “hiding” is no exaggeration; the U.S. does not have a law mandating country-of-origin labeling — “COOL,” to the nation’s meat producers, who are lobbying for it.

It wasn’t a great time to introduce foreign beef to the U.S. marketplace, as COVID-19 has changed dining habits and cut into the market.

Contacted at his Niangua Century Farm, Cantrell Creek Angus, beef producer Travis Cantrell was willing to answer a few questions about the trend.

The most troubling problem, according to Cantrell, is that there is nowhere near the safety requirements for cattle produced in other countries. What’s more, beef is cheaper to raise in other countries, which can take advantage of an abundance of water.

“They flood our market with cheaper beef, and it’s probably worse now than ever,” Cantrell said.

Cantrell worries about the end customer as well.

“A lot of that stuff is tainted, and they’re putting U.S. stickers on everything coming in,” he said.

Namibian or Brazilian beef that is processed or packaged in the U.S. sometimes carries a label saying that it is a product of the U.S. It seems likely that consumers believe it’s the beef, not the package, that originated in the U.S., but without COOL labeling laws, there is no way of knowing the country of origin by looking at the package.

It’s a vexing problem to Cantrell, who can look out over his rolling pastureland and see plenty of sources of American beef as they graze and lounge beneath shade trees.

“There’s enough beef,” Cantrell said. “We have enough to sustain this whole United States.”

Foreign beef has hit the market hard, he added. “It’s killing the market for the United States,” he said. American producers have an abundance of meat, but they can’t compete with the price of imported product, which can be produced and shipped with looser restrictions than those required of domestic farmers.

Some who follow farm news may remember a 2017 scandal involving tainted beef from Brazil. Most countries quickly closed their doors to Brazilian beef, but Cantrell said that the U.S. was one of the last to reject the imports.

Imported meat also raises fears about food and mouth disease (FMD) — said to be eradicated in Brazil, declared FMD-free in 2018, but still present in Namibia.

Cantrell also raised the issue of animal welfare. Laws are not as strict in other countries as they are in the U.S., and that’s part of the hidden ethical cost of eating mystery meat.

Consumers have recently experienced higher prices for beef in stores and restaurants, but Cantrell clarified that this money is not making it into the pocket of the farmers. He noted that if a customer goes to Texas Roadhouse and orders a $25 ribeye, the person who raised the cow doesn’t get half of that amount. Or a quarter. Or an eighth. Or a sixteenth ….

“We probably get about $1,” Cantrell said.

“Everyone’s getting rich off the farmer,” he said. From grain feed to fuel to multiple other expenses, no one is paying more than the American producer, he figured. What’s more, every little thing — and some really big things, like COVID-19 — affect the cattle market.

“Basically the moral of the story is if they can raise it cheaper and get it to market cheaper, they make more money,” Cantrell said. “There’s so much margin for profit, and that’s what’s killing all of us.”

Well, that’s what’s killing the farmer, anyway.

“You don’t even know if they have diseases,” Cantrell added, referring to the foreign beef.

There are efforts underway to get Congress to pass country-of-origin labeling and to restrict foreign imports. Cantrell figures that if people knew the country of origin, many of them would choose American beef.

“Everyone needs to buy U.S. beef,” he said. “Buy American. That will put a stop to them — and it’s better for everybody.”

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