Billings Gazette: Tester’s Paraguayan beef ban passes Senate, despite Biden warning

by Tom Lutey

Biden administration plans to allow beef imports from Paraguay was rejected Wednesday by the U.S. Senate, which passed a bill by Montana Sen. Jon Tester.

The bill was just the latest step by Tester to address the risk of foot and mouth disease to U.S. livestock. Previous Tester bills blocked beef imported from Argentina for the same reason. The Montana Democrat has also waged a years-long battle against relocating a National Bio and Agro-Defense facility from Plum Island off the New York coast to Kansas.

Supporters of the ban include the Billings-based Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America, as well as the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, two groups typically on opposite ends of the debate concerning restrictions on meatpackers.

“Look, while the chances of a foot and mouth disease outbreak, to some, may appear low. The effects of just one outbreak can be devastating,” Tester said before the bill’s passage. “The cost to ranchers, for our economy, is estimated as high as $200 billion. And you say why could that happen? Well, I mean, how could it happen? It’s just a little bit of meat coming into the U.S.

“Well, the fact is, this is highly contagious. And what happens if a cow contracts this disease, it’s just like pouring acid over their nose, over their udders, over their feet, blisters the mouth. . . Quite frankly, it goes through a herd like wildfire and puts people out of business and impacts our food security.”

The bill passed 70 to 25. Republican Sen. Mike Rounds of South Dakota was a primary co-sponsor. Republican Sens. Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming, and North Dakota’s John Hoeven and Kevin Cramer were co-sponsors as well.

Montana Sen. Steve Daines voted for the bill. Bipartisan wins in the Senate usually become more difficult in an election year. Tester is on the ballot in November. The outcome of Tester’s race could determine control of the Senate. 

Tuesday, President Joe Biden’s office issued a letter discouraging passage of Tester’s bill, which it said, “would undermine the credibility of long-standing science-based decision-making processes respected by the U.S. and upheld in our trade agreements and could in turn severely threaten fair access to new and existing export markets for U.S. farmers and ranchers.”

Russia cut off access to some Paraguayan beef exporters after the South American country denounced Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Paraguay also lost access to China after recognizing Taiwan’s independence. Rejecting an ally that shares United States priorities sends the wrong message, according to the president.

“This resolution would amplify the false narratives pushed by our adversaries that the United States is not a reliable economic partner. And it would seriously harm U.S. national security interests, especially our efforts to support partners around the world who seek our help to resist economic coercion,” the president’s office said.

The Embassy of Paraguay in the United States, responded to the bill by sharing Biden’s letter of caution and adding that “the authorization of importation of beef from Paraguay came after a comprehensive risk analysis of several years by the USDA, which have confirmed that our food safety system governing beef products is equivalent to that of the United States.”