A Real Example of [Really] Messy Meat Politics

Note: I’ve added a bunch of footnotes and once again, I’ve failed to figure out how to build those notes so you can “jump” from a note number to its content (which is at the foot of the main text) and then back to the main text. I’m obviously doing something wrong (I can make the jump from note to content, but can’t figure out how to reverse the process). So apologies for the clunkiness (again). But hey! You can make sense of the main text without reading the footnotes, so not to worry. (And please: Don’t ask the obvious question: If we don’t need them, why the hell do you include them??)


Meat politics are amazingly complicated and messy because there are so many players — sooo many players — all with competing agendas. Bedfellows change regularly: sometimes environmentalists will side with packers, for example. Sometimes packers side with farmers. Sometimes farmers side with righteous food reformers. It all depends on who wants what.

The weird thing is that for the  most part, media (mainstream) tends these days to focus on only one set of players — food reformer/activists. The Pollanists definitely control the dialogue. But it’s never never never as simple as that, so here’s a delightful example of the hard truth about the messy nature of meat politics.


On May 14, NPR’s All Things Considered aired a short piece about a controversial USDA decision to permit beef imports from Brazil to the US.  

The reporter (Luke Runyon of the excellent Harvest Public Media) hooked his story to an interview with a Nebraska cattle rancher. (*A)

She feared that Brazilian beef would be contaminated with viral materials that could spark an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) in the United States. FMD is both fatal and highly contagious to cattle and swine. US herds have not experienced an outbreak in eighty years. (Say what you like about meat/livestock inspection, but the US enjoys remarkably healthy livestock herds thanks to USDA efforts.) In Brazil, however, the virus is active; that country experienced an outbreak in 2006.

Flickr Creative Commons

Flickr Creative Commons

The National Beef Cattlemen’s Association (NBCA), an industry trade/lobbying group, opposes the importations. NBCA argues that Brazil’s oversight/inspection system is only “adequate” and that diseased meats might find their way into the US.

The NBCA based its conclusion on a recent audit of Brazil conducted by the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS). According to that audit, Brazil’s livestock/meat processing oversight/regulatory system is only “adequate,” the lowest ranking in the FSIS system. FSIS concluded that beef from Brazil ought not be imported into the US. (*G)
So — the obvious question: Why is the USDA allowing the imports?

Answer: Because another USDA division, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) (sick of the acronyms yet??), conducted a study of the potential hoof-and-mouth risks posed by imported meats and concluded too small to be of concern. (*C)

So APHIS granted permission to “initiate trade in fresh (chilled or frozen), maturated, deboned beef” from Brazil.

But — ooooh, boy! The politics go sooo much deeper than these two conflicting reports, and if we sort through those we’ll find, well, that “meat politics” are even messier than most people imagine.

Let’s begin.


The obvious starting place is an obvious question: Why the interest in importing Brazilian beef to the US?

Answer: Thanks to drought in the southwestern US, the nation’s cattle herd is the smallest it’s been in sixty years.

Flickr Creative Commons

Flickr Creative Commons

In practical terms, that means beef prices are soaring. Meatpackers have fewer cattle to buy for slaughter, and so consumers have less beef to choose from at the store. (*D: For an explanation of the connection between drought and price, see this note below.)

As an aside, here’s a prime  — no pun intended — example of why packers and ranchers are often at odds: Packers hate it when ranchers to cull their herds. Packers don’t want to compete for cattle (high prices!) and they don’t want to get blamed for high prices at the grocery store. So even as ranchers resist imports of other beef, packers will lobby for them. (*E)

Put another way, livestock producers and packers are at odds on the question of imported meats (and they’ve been at odds, oh, since about 1685 or so). Which explains why ranchers are being a tad disingenuous about the potential risks from Brazilian beef. Someone would have to be either incredibly sloppy and careless or incredibly unlucky to come in contact with FMD viral materials and spread those to live animals. It could happen — but the odds are slim.

Do ranchers fear FMD? Of course! Is fresh, frozen, or pre-cooked beef like to cause an outbreak? Highly unlikely. What ranchers truly fear, however, is that by time the cattle herd is rebuilt (a process that takes seven years), they’ll be competing with beef from Brazil.  Brazilian beef reduces packers’ dependence on US cattle supplies and thus ranchers’ incomes. And similar fears have surfaced regularly over the past few centuries --- anytime weather or demand mess up the herd size.


But there’s more — and this is why I’m surprised this report has not gotten more attention.

This is precisely the kind of fodder (couldn’t resist) food activists/reformers love and latch on to in support of their various causes.

Some will say: “Look, people! The USDA doesn’t care about your health. It’s going to allow imports of beef from a nation with active FMD. Eat local beef. You’ll know where it came from. Better yet, eat organic, local beef.”

Flickr Creative Commons   

Flickr Creative Commons


Environmentalists, too, will oppose the imports. Many of them see agriculture in general and livestock/meat production in particular as lethal sources of environmental catastrophe. Banning imports and letting meat costs soar is one way to force Americans, the biggest meat eaters on the planet (more or less), to acknowledge the monetary and environmental costs of meat: “No imports,” they’ll say. “Let meat costs here in the US soar. Maybe then Americans will wake up, smell the bacon, and stop eating so much meat.”

Then there’s the enormous, pesky elephant in this particular room: China. The monetary and supply links between China and Brazilian agriculture, and especially anything related to meats, are immense and growing at a fast pace. (For detailed analysis of China's demand for meat and its global impacts, see these reports.)

Brazil is already a primary source of feedstuffs (soy and corn) for the Chinese livestock producers. The Chinese don’t each much beef (they prefer pork and chicken) but their consumption of beef is soaring and so, no surprise, are tons of beef shipped from Brazil to China. Indeed, China is one of Brazil’s three major beef markets (the other two are Hong Kong and Russia). In 2012, the Chinese banned Brazilian beef because of fears of fear of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, but there’s no reason to assume that ban won’t be lifted.

If the US shows even the slightest sign that it, too, wants Brazilian beef — well, based on what China needs — food and lots of it (in part because of its current plan to move the bulk of the population from the countryside into cities) — it’s reasonable to assume that investors will move to gain greater control over Brazilian livestock supplies.


So when it comes to the question of beef imports from Brazil, well — there’s more than meets the eye and the ranchers are only one group affected by the decision. (And that's not a criticism of the original NPR report. One report can only include so much complexity, right?)

Flickr Creative Commons

Flickr Creative Commons

Let’s circle back to that rancher interviewed by Luke Runyon: She doesn’t want the imports because she fears disease.

But she and others are culling their herds because of  — weather. Drought, to be precise. The single factor that no one can control has set in motion a new round of amazingly messy, complex meat politics.

(And hey! I’ve not even mentioned the way in which that drought adds to the messiness: Blame global warming! Or so the environmentalists will say [because these days, every. fucking. weather. thing. is being blamed on the climate crisis]. No surprise, the drought that’s causing this current hoo-ha uproar has been blamed on massive global environmental woes, etc. etc. etc. (*F) )

From my historian’s perspective, however, this is politics as usual.

In the 1890s, for example, the US and Germany got into a looong wrangle over pork imported from the US to Germany. I won’t bore you with the details, but the wrangling involved foreign policy, trade politics, tariffs, global imperialism, nation-building, drought, famine, one-upmanship, testosterone overload, and global demand. (You know: all the usual crap that causes diplomatic debacles.)

But in the US, the situation was presented as a case of the German government declaring US pork unsafe to eat. None of the rest of meat politics broke the surface.

So it is here. When it comes to meat politics, there are an infinite number of ways for all parties involved to squabble, complain, and harass each other, all in the name of furthering an agenda. What rises to the surface, however, is typically just one tiny piece of a larger and complex tale. (Indeed, the case of this blog essay, I'm only skimming the surface. I've not touched on: consumer advocacy, consumers in general, the wrangling over "Country of Origin Labels," to name just a few more ways in which we Americans squabble over meat.)

And meat politics are amazingly complex. What we read/hear in the media is typically a simple-minded, singled-sided take on what are, in reality, nearly Kafkaesque dramas among and between competing players.

Media consumers beware.


*A: Harvest Public Media is a consortium of public radio stations that report on all things agricultural for public radio outlets. Although there’s some of the “aren’t goats groovy” kind of stuff, for the most part HPM’s reporters also dig deep into contemporary American food politics and do so more even-handedly and more thoroughly than most media sources. Full disclosure: I’ve been interviewed by HPM reporters twice.

*G: To answer that question forming in your mind: Yes, any country that wants to ship meat/livestock into the US must have an oversight/regulatory system that is at least equivalent to that of the US. You are free to draw your own conclusions.

*C: APHIS concluded that the major source of risk posed by fresh meats lay in feeding live swine with “plate and manufacturing wastes” that might contain viral materials. But the analysts argued that said risk chain was minute because US swine are rarely fed plate or manufacturing wastes.

*D: During drought, ranchers cull their herds. Without grass, they can’t feed their cattle. But rebuilding the herd takes about seven years: Once ranchers cull, they then have to acquire cows and wait for those cows to give birth to the stock that will replenish the herd. Meantime, cattle are in short supply and prices high. Also see this piece I wrote about that in 2012.

*E: Historical note: A century ago, American meatpacking giants Armour, Swift, Wilson, and a couple of others invested billions of today’s dollars building packing plants and ranches in South America. Why? Because US cattle ranchers couldn’t keep up with demand and those packers had huge global markets. They needed beef to sell at home and abroad.

*F: No, for those about to send me an angry email: I’m not a crisis denier. What I am is a lifelong weather watcher, and global warming or not, planet earth experiences regular weather cycles — including too much rain, not enough rain, too much cold, too much heat —- that have affected the global food market ever since, well, ever since humans beings stood upright and started walking toward each other with something to trade.