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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The Department of Agriculture wants to green-light imports of fresh beef from Brazil. The problem is that the South American country has a history of foot and mouth disease, a highly contagious pathogen that cripples cattle. Imports could help lower beef prices, currently at record highs. The USDA says there's little risk of the disease making its way into U.S. packages of meat.

But as Luke Runyon, of member station KUNC reports, the deal still has many American ranchers wringing their hands.

LUKE RUNYON, BYLINE: Sharon Harvat drives a blue pickup truck through a field of several hundred pregnant heffers on her property outside Scott's Bluff in western Nebraska.

SHARON HARVAT: On a warm day, they'll lay out flat like that.

RUNYON: Harvat and her husband run their cattle here in the Nebraska panhandle during the winter and then it's back to northern Colorado when the calves are born. Harvat says, when she heard about a proposal to open up the beef trade with Brazil, she felt a pit in her stomach.

HARVAT: An operation like ours, where we travel a lot with our cattle, that would probably come to an abrupt halt if there was an outbreak.

RUNYON: An outbreak of foot and mouth disease. Even though it rarely transmits to humans, it's super-contagious in livestock. The U.S. hasn't had an outbreak in more than 80 years. Brazil has. The latest was in 2006. Outbreaks in other countries have led to mass slaughter of animals and put a kibosh on any beef trade, causing huge economic damage in the billions of dollars. And that knowledge worries Harvat.

HARVAT: I would imagine it would spread like wildfire. And then what would it do for the Ag economy? It would shut it down.

GARY COLGROVE: We certainly understand the concerns, yes, the concerns that we'd be putting the U.S. livestock industry at risk by allowing these imports.

RUNYON: Gary Colgrove is a director with the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which oversees trade relationships.

COLGROVE: However, we feel the risk analysis is robust and it's out there for the public to scrutinize.

RUNYON: That risk analysis says, yes, a foot and mouth disease outbreak would be devastating but all the fear is unwarranted. Colgrove says Brazil has proven its ability to contain and control the disease. The country's been vaccinating cattle against foot and mouth for years. And when American inspectors visited Brazil over the past decade, ports were well staffed and a system of permits to keep the disease in check was up to speed. Still, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association is unconvinced.

And it's not just the specter of disease. Trade deals like this bring economic consequences, too.

STEVE KOONTZ: We're very short on ground beef.

RUNYON: Steve Koontz is an agricultural economist at Colorado State University. Any grill master knows beef prices are at record highs, due to years of drought and burdensome feed costs.

KOONTZ: We will have very high ground beef prices and you can mitigate that a little bit with Brazilian beef.

RUNYON: The added beef supply could bring down American grocery store prices and Koontz says that's good news for consumers and fast food joints.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOOING)

RUNYON: And at the same time, it's potentially bad news for ranchers like Sharon Harvat, who could see the price she receives drop, too.

HARVAT: I know there's a shortage of beef in this country and that's why the prices are so high. But is that enough to justify...

(LAUGHTER)

HARVAT: ...our food security?

RUNYON: Harvat won't have an answer for a while. A final decision from the USDA on allowing Brazilian beef isn't expected for months.

For NPR News, I'm Luke Runyon in Greeley, Colorado.

CORNISH: That story came to us from Harvest Public Media, a public radio reporting collaboration focusing on agriculture and food.

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