The European Union (EU) has restricted nearly all imports of Brazilian beef on animal health concerns, but EU farmers' groups think only an outright ban will protect their herds from Brazil's endemic foot-and-mouth disease (FMD).

Veterinary representatives of the EU's 27 member states agreed Dec. 19 on strict new traceability and animal movement measures for Brazil. In an effort to keep EU beef supplies FMD-free, as of Jan. 31, 2008, most Brazilian fresh and frozen beef imports will come to an end. Early estimates show only about 3% of the country's 10,000 holdings will qualify under the new rules.

“Despite a series of warnings from the European Commission (EC) after previous inspections, the Brazilian authorities failed to take the appropriate measures to correct these problems and to fully meet EU requirements,” the EC said in a statement. “Therefore, the EC feels it is necessary to increase the restrictions on Brazilian beef imports in order to maintain a high level of protection for animal health in the EU, while avoiding the alternative of an outright ban.”

Brazil's Agriculture Ministry called the EU restrictions “unnecessary” and “unjustified,” and threatened filing a complaint with the World Trade Organization.

According to the EC's spokeswoman on health, Haravgi-Nina Papadoulaki, reports from the EC's veterinary inspectors in recent years provide comprehensive details on the shortcomings found in the control systems in Brazil and the recommended corrective measures.

“In parallel, EC services have also been in regular contact with their Brazilian counterparts to make their concerns known. At a political level, serious concerns were expressed on the occasion of the visit of European Commissioner for Health Markos Kyprianou to Brazil in October 2006, and during the visit of Brazil's Agriculture Minister Reinhold Stephanes to Commissioner Kyprianou last October,” she said.

The EC's veterinary service has been raising flags regarding Brazilian compliance with EU standards since 2002.

Beef imports from the Brazilian states of Sao Paulo, Mato Grosso do Sul and Parana have been banned from the EU since autumn 2005 because of FMD. Yet in 2006, annual exports to Europe had only dropped by 5% from the annual average of 333,000 metric tons, raising concerns that cattle-movement restrictions between states weren't being upheld and a national tracking system wasn't really in place.

The Brazilian government implemented a tracking system based on mechanisms inserted into the ear rather than tags, known as Sisbov, in 2002. All exporting producers and processors operating in FMD-free states were required to implement the system by the end of 2005, with those in FMD states required to implement the system by the end of 2007. Producers and processors not intending to export could enroll in Sisbov on a voluntary basis.

Roughly 70 operators, all but two of them private, are responsible for certifying users of Sisbov on behalf of the government.

“Records about the life of the animal and sanitary factors are used to exercise, at least potentially, inspection action. Therefore, it would be desirable for the certifying company to be totally impartial and independent from the cattlemen. It's difficult to believe this independence can exist in a commercial relationship,” said a 2006 study published in the Brazilian journal Agricultural and Social Studies.

On average, traced beef receives a 5% premium over beef from the “common herd,” according to the journal report.

Despite Brazil's attempts to streamline its traceability system and devise rules it thought would satisfy both the EC and European consumers, European beef producers have pressured the EC for a full ban.

The Irish Farmers Association (IFA) sent delegations to Brazil in 2006 and 2007 to study the animal health and traceability system. For two years, delegations have been reporting back to the Irish government and the EC raising complaints about the disregard for European standards.

As one of Europe's largest beef producers, Ireland has battled cheap Brazilian beef imports on what they say is an unfair basis. The Irish have to abide by strict — and expensive — EU standards, while beef imported from Brazil didn't have to.

“While our preferred outcome would have been a total ban, this decision goes a long way to addressing the unfairness of the current situation, where one of our main competitors is allowed to operate to lower standards than those expected by European producers, and will also provide further safeguards for consumers,” said Peter Kendall, the United Kingdom's (UK) National Farmers Union president.

The UK is extra sensitive regarding FMD following a devastating outbreak in 2001-2002 that halted exports until 2007. Another minor outbreak in mid 2007 halted exports temporarily.

IFA National Livestock Chairman John Bryan, who traveled on both IFA missions to Brazil, said, “FMD is endemic in Brazil, and I remain convinced that only a total ban would properly safeguard the European herd. Previous attempts to regulate Brazilian beef imports into Europe have fallen down due to a lack of traceability and movement controls, ineffective vaccination against FMD and Brazil's inability to enforce a proper regionalization policy to contain FMD.”

Meghan Sapp is an American journalist based in Brussels, Belgium.