Why the EU must ban all Brazilian beef imports

BRAZIL is a vast country. It covers 8.5 million square kilometres - that's 32 times the size of the UK - and has a population of 160 million. It also boasts the fastest growing beef production industry in the world.

However, the leaders of that industry are not playing by the established rules of international trade and animal health and welfare. Last spring a delegation from the Irish Republic, including my friend Justin McCarthy of the Irish Farmers Journal visited Brazil and were horrified at what they saw - an almost total lack of cattle traceability and the apparent flouting of movement restrictions following outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) in three provinces, Mato Grosso do Sul, Parana and Sao Paulo.

Last month McCarthy returned to Brazil with John Bryan and Kevin Kinsella of the Irish Farmers Association (IFA), which is the equivalent of NFU Scotland. They visited 42 farms on their trip and travelled more than 1,500 miles.

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What they discovered was shocking: not a single unit visited had a robust system of traceability, while 73 per cent of the farms had no ear tags in any cattle. A quarter of the farms had tags only in animals aged over 24 months. If such practices were found anywhere in Europe the cattle would be deemed worthless and their owners faced with hefty fines and, quite possibly, a spell behind bars.

The European Commission has banned all imports of beef from the three provinces with FMD since October 2005. I well remember attending an international food exhibition in Cologne when that ban was imposed and immediately visiting the Brazilian pavilion with several other journalists to gauge the reaction. We were greeted by a very large gentleman attired in what I judged to be an extremely expensive suit. This affable fellow offered us cigars and coffee. I stuck to my pipe, but accepted the very fine coffee.

Obviously we of the media wanted to know how this outbreak of FMD, which had been rumoured for some time, would impact on the Brazilian beef industry.

No problem, we were told, it would soon be solved and routine vaccination would ensure there would be minimal spread.

This has proved to be a complete falsehood and the Irish party confirmed suspicions that the vaccination regime was haphazard at best and sometimes completely non-existent.

Meanwhile, the EU continued to import Brazilian beef, allegedly from regions declared clear of the disease. This is where the whole business begins to stink. Before the imposition of the ban, 60 per cent of imports to the EU came from the three infected provinces, so the logical expectation was there would be a major decline in Brazilian exports to the EU. This simply has not happened and official statistics from Brussels reveal that during 2006 there was a decline of just 5 per cent.

Last year the EU imported 333,000 tonnes of beef from Brazil. In the first two months of 2007 the UK accepted 4,951 tonnes of beef from Brazil, which suggests that over a full year the total would be close to 30,000 tonnes.

Meanwhile, Brazil has been pressing for the ban on the affected provinces to be lifted, but so far the EU has been reluctant. Indeed the Brazilian ambassador in Brussels was recently warned that unless his country got its act together a total ban would be imposed.

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Japan, South Korea and the US will have absolutely nothing to do with beef from Brazil, regardless of which province it comes from. The EU, following this latest Irish investigation, should follow suit with all possible haste.

However, the Brazilian industry was inspected by EU veterinary authorities last year. They reported that, subject to some minor irregularities, there was no reason to ban all imports. Either those inspectors chose not to upset the Brazilians or my friends from Ireland were blind. I know whose word I believe.

At the recent conference of the Scottish Association of Meat Wholesalers in Edinburgh, Professor Patrick Wall, who leads the European Food Standards Agency and who is also Irish, appeared distinctly edgy when questioned over imports from Brazil. Wall is normally very open and frank, but this time I gained the impression that he was far from happy with the situation in South America.

There is a further political dimension to this issue in that European commissioner Markos Kyprianou, who has responsibilities for health and consumer protection, has failed to take any action so far. He should now impose a total ban on all imports from Brazil, especially since there is clear evidence of the use of growth-promoting hormones on a large scale. The use of such substances has long been illegal in the EU.

Peter Mandelson, the trade commissioner, has also been slow to stir. I cannot help wondering if his inaction has anything to do with not wishing to upset Brazil in the run-up to the next stage of the World Trade Organisation's deliberations on liberalising international commerce.

In any event, the IFA will present its findings to the commission in Brussels this week, while a DVD of the mission has been sent to all industry leaders throughout the EU. An immediate and total ban must be imposed, not just to protect the EU's livestock industry, but also to safeguard consumer interests. The major supermarkets should also be taking action.

Farmers in Scotland will have an opportunity to hear first hand of the Irish experiences on 12 June in the MacRobert pavilion at Ingliston, when the Scottish Beef Cattle Association (SBCA) will host a presentation by McCarthy and Bryan along with Matt Demspey, the editor of the Irish Farmers Journal. This is a notable coup for the fledgling SBCA, which has made it clear that attendance will not be restricted to its 500 members and that all interested will be welcome. I suspect it will be standing room only.