Hereford Angus calves watch in anticipation

Hereford-Angus-cross calves stand in a holding pen before being brought out into a branding area — three or four at a time — to be branded.

JAMES WOODCOCK, Gazette Staff

A rotten meat scandal in Brazil has Montana ranchers cowed about U.S. beef sales taking a hit.

Brazil shuttered three meat processing plants last week and suspended three dozen government employees for allegedly looking the other way as rotten beef was moved for sale. Brazil is one of the largest beef producers in the world. One of the packing plant owners, JBS Sao Palo, also has packing plants in the United States. JBS is the second largest meatpacker in the U.S.

With the lack of country-of-origin labeling in supermarkets, it’s impossible for American consumers to know where their beef is coming from, said Neil Glennie, who raises Angus calves near Judith Gap. Glennie is nervous about a Brazil-related contaminated meat outbreak at an American supermarket hurting U.S. ranchers.

“If we had one bad episode of Brazilian beef contamination, it would just kill our beef industry and the rancher would get blamed,” Glennie said.

The rancher would like to turn back the clock to 2015 when the United States had country of origin labeling, or COOL, requirements. For four years, COOL required labels on meat, fruit and vegetables so that shoppers knew where their food was raised.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported Wednesday that no contaminated Brazillian beef has entered the United States. None of the meatpacking plants implicated in shipping rotten meat and using a chemical wash to mask the spoilage have sent beef to the United States, USDA reported.

COOL was popular with American shoppers, farmers and ranchers, but not with Canada and Mexico, who argued the labels discouraged U.S. consumers from buying products from those countries. They filed an unfair trade practices claim with the World Trade Organization, insisting that COOL violated the North American Free Trade Agreement.

The WTO ruled that Canada and Mexico could impose tariffs on U.S. products, a move estimated to cost the United States $1 billion. Congress responded by repealing COOL in 2015.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., was a major COOL advocate. This week, Tester proposed banning Brazilian beef from the United States for 120 days so the USDA could identify any risk associated with Brazilian beef in the United States.

“We must take decisive action to ensure no family in Montana or anywhere else in this country is exposed to the danger of deceptive Brazilian beef processors,” said Tester. “We cannot allow harmful food to come into our markets and endanger our families.”

Tester’s proposed ban was welcomed by the United States Cattlemen’s Association, a COOL advocate that has been opposed to Brazilian beef.

“USCA has long advocated that both Argentina and Brazil lack the necessary means to ensure safely exported beef,” said Jess Peterson, spokesman for the group. “This issue yet again confirms the fact that the U.S. should have strong reservations with importing products from South America. When it comes to producing beef, U.S. cattle and beef producers follow the most stringent safety standards in the world. We take that commitment very seriously. When a blemish like this comes up from a foreign country — increased oversight and investigation is warranted and the question is emphasized — why even import beef from South America in the first place?”

Last August, the USDA greenlighted beef imports from Brazil after ironing out safety concerns, namely with foot and mouth disease. The USDA concluded that Brazilian beef shipped to the United States had to be boneless, an accepted method for preventing importation of diseases like FMD and mad cow disease.

Tester opposed the USDA decision last year.

Both Montana Sens. Tester and Republican Steve Daines penned letters to Acting Deputy Agriculture Secretary Michael Young on Wednesday with questions about beef imports from Brazil.

Daines’ request was slightly more nuanced. He asked that any meatpacking plant implicated in the scandal be banned from shipping beef to the United States, but left the door open for imports from facilities not implicated.

The confirmation hearing begins Thursday for Sonny Perdue, President Donald Trump’s agriculture secretary nominee. Daines, a Senate Agriculture Committee member, will get a chance to question the nominee.

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Agriculture and Politics Reporter

Politics and agriculture reporter for The Billings Gazette.