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RSS By: Steve Cornett, Beef Today

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Calvinball and Customs

Apr 27, 2010

By Steve Cornett

We got a news release last week from R-CALF USA in which they argue that, by considering a regional Foot and Mouth differentiation in Brazil,

“USDA is engaged in a high-risk and dangerous exercise of granting undeserved deference to the OIE (World Organization for Animal Health), making optimistic conclusions when faced with scientific uncertainty, and acting in a reactionary manner following the occurrence of FMD outbreaks rather than exercising precaution to protect U.S. livestock from the introduction of FMD.”

Now, I’m not at all anxious to see USDA allow Brazilian beef into the U.S. As I argued last week, if Brazil can’t assure us and the international arbiters that it can protect us from FMD, I say don’t let the stuff in. But, the attitude of R-CALF--this “granting undeserved deference to the OIE”--is the myopic epitome of the protectionist sentiment that has limited U.S. beef sales to Asia.

I may have mentioned before that I really, really hate the way Asia is ignoring the OIE on BSE rules. It is costing us hundreds of millions of dollars, and it’s largely because there are a bunch of protectionists—there, not here, in this case--demanding overreaction.

If our Wall Builders go around talking about “undeserved deference to the OIE,” what moral authority do we have to be complaining about Korea or Japan making the same claim?

That’s like arguing that people who obey the speed limit are giving “undeserved deference” to the law. 

I’m a big believer in the rule of rules, and not because I like all the rules. To make the world work right, you agree on rules and you agree on an arbitration system to enforce the rules. If you don’t like the rules you’ve agreed to, you work to change the rules. You don’t just suddenly say, “oh, I don’t like that rule.”

That’s Calvinball, in the sense of the old Calvin and Hobbes comic strips, wherein you make up new rules as you need them to give you an advantage in a given situation.

R-CALF is, of course, asking Congress to do just that, to change the rules, and I’ve no doubt Congress will be happy to comply. That, like much of what Congress does, won’t make it smart. 

FMD will, eventually, find its way into the U.S. It probably won’t, however, be through a controlled, legal channel from a Brazil. It will more likely come in through our still-weak customs system on a pair of dirty boots (you’ll recall the African drums that came through customs a few years ago?) or some other carrier

Our /Ag Web colleague Greg Vincent recently led an agricultural tour to Brazil—the very Brazil of which we are speaking.

Yesterday morning we had this exchange:

From me: 
Greg, as you guys came in from Brazil, were there any extra precautions at customs because you had been in an FMD country?

From Greg:
I told everyone to make sure they marked down we were on farms and in livestock areas...and in fields for soybean rust concerns. My reason: I don't want FJM to be tied to anything that could be the result of FMD or a massive soybean rust outbreak. To my knowledge each of us marked it down on the sheet correctly.

They hardly even looked at us when we went through. Ran the bags through a scanner to make sure we weren't smuggling a ham, but that was it.

I was sort of appalled. At the very least I wanted a shoe cleaning. 

These were farmers, these travelers. They’d all been on farms in Brazil. They all were heading straight to farms in the U.S. It was up to them to not sneak some uncured treat or trinket in their bags. Fortunately, they were U.S. farmers with no reason to carry FMD to Oklahoma or Iowa.

I knew that would be the gist of his answer because I’ve been back and forth through customs enough to know how it works. It’s an honor system. Were I, say, a Brazilian cattleman—a member of the some protectionist Brazilian cattlemen’s club, say, who didn’t believe in the rule of rules—and I wanted to get a leg up on U.S. beef exporters, what’s to keep me from sneaking a bit of FMD in and turning it loose in some cattle auction?
I think we’ll get FMD in the U.S. By hook or by crook or by accident. When FMD hits YOUR home county, I want the world trading system to allow MY home county to continue exporting while the problem area is cleaned up. How can we logically deny Brazil the same opportunity? Yes, we should hold them to strict standards, just as we would an infected region in the U.S.

But to rewrite OIE standards to please our protectionist brethren, thus making a localized FMD outbreak even more damaging, is to give would-be terrorists a bigger club than the already have.
U.S. beef will be better off following the rules and demanding our trading partners do the same. If beef has a profitable, growing, future, it is overseas and not in a U.S. that is more concerned about obesity than protein and iron in the diet.
Like I say, competition-wise, it would suit me fine if OIE and USDA decide that Brazil can’t get clean enough, that there is no way for them to deliver us risk-free beef. I don’t relish the thought of more competition, either. But we agreed to the rules at hand. We should follow them. Rules is rules and if we don’t follow them, we can hardly expect others to, either. 

Steve Cornett is editor emeritus at Beef Today. You can reach him via e-mail at


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COMMENTS (12 Comments)

Here we go again, but I have to agree with some of what Bill Bullard just posted. The border trade needs rules, not so much the "golden rule", but rules that are responsible, that can and will be enforced. No one will play by an unwritten rule! The key here is "enforcement"!
9:27 AM May 3rd
out to pasture(OUT OF TOUCH)!
9:28 PM Apr 30th
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