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Top news stories of 2017

Published on 16 November 2017

New faces in Washington

The inauguration of a new president sparked a wave of change in Washington’s executive branch, owing in large part to the support Donald Trump enjoyed from rural votes and middle America states in the 2016 election.

Trump chose Sonny Perdue, a former Georgia governor and agribusiness entrepreneur, to lead the USDA, while new officials within the EPA and Interior Department kindled strong support from Trump’s rural base.

New policies on water resource regulations, land preservation and antiquities protection were popular but tempered later with announced cutbacks at the USDA.

China lifts ban on U.S. beef

After many months of negotiation, the U.S. and China came to an agreement in June that allows commercial shipment of U.S. beef to China for the first time since 2003. Specific requirements include:

  • Beef and beef products must be derived from cattle born, raised and slaughtered in the U.S.; cattle imported from Canada or Mexico and subsequently raised and slaughtered in the U.S.; or cattle imported from Canada or Mexico for direct slaughter.

  • Cattle must be traceable to the U.S. birth farm using a unique identifier or, if imported, to the first place of residence or port of entry.

  • Beef and beef products must be derived from cattle less than 30 months old.

  • Chilled or frozen bone-in and deboned beef products are eligible for shipment.

Interior review of monuments

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke wrote a draft in August proposing President Trump modify 10 national monuments created by previous administrations under the Antiquities Act. Zinke conducted a review of all monuments designated over the past 20 years, including the controversial 1.35-million-acre Bears Ears monument announced in 2016.

Zinke’s draft, which was leaked to national media, didn’t yet specify how much reduction to make in each monument. But the draft specified Trump could prioritize many uses and protections, and that previous presidents had reduced the size of 16 monuments 18 different times.

Trump indicated in October he would reduce Bears Ears with a plan to be released later in the year.

Wildfires in cattle country

Exacerbated by drought and hot, dry weather, wildfires took a devastating toll on ranchers throughout several states in the West, Southwest and Midwest in 2017. From March through September, millions of acres were scorched in Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Washington and California.

The brutality of the fires was matched only by the resiliency and generosity of the farming and ranching community. Stories of hay and supplies being donated and shipped hundreds of miles to bring relief to ranchers who suffered the loss of cattle, feed, facilities and homes were as common as the tales of devastation.

The beef with Brazil

In June the USDA, under the direction of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, suspended imports of fresh beef from Brazil because of recurring food safety problems. The decision came on the heels of an investigation by Brazilian federal police that involved allegations of bribery by two major exporting companies, JBS SA and BRF SA.

The investigation led to the arrest of JBS CEO, Wesley Batista and his brother, Joesley, for suspected insider trading. JBS SA is the world’s largest protein producer, with reported sales of $33.9 billion, half of which were generated by the JBS USA subsidiary.

High beef tariffs in Japan

The popularity of U.S. beef in Japan triggered an unexpected and unwanted trade obstacle in that nation midway through 2017. A safeguard rule under the World Trade Organization pushed tariffs on U.S. beef up from 38.5 percent to 50 percent.

The tariff went into effect Aug. 1 and is expected to last through March 31, 2018. The tariff only affects exports from nations, including the U.S., that do not have free-trade agreements with Japan.

Beef trade officials called the move a setback considering how Japan was the U.S.’s top trade partner in both volume and value.

BPI settlement with ABC News

After almost five years of legal wrangling, ABC News settled a lawsuit from Beef Products Inc. (BPI) stemming from the news network’s reporting about the lean finely textured beef product dubbed as “pink slime.”

The settlement came weeks into the $1.9 billion defamation case heard in a South Dakota circuit court. BPI was suing ABC and its correspondent Jim Avila, claiming the network and reporter knowingly gave false information about BPI in its 2012 reporting. In a regulatory report filed by ABC’s parent company, Disney, the settlement was disclosed as $177 million.

Hurricanes Harvey and Irma impact Southern states

In late August and early September, hurricanes Harvey and Irma made landfall on some of the U.S.’s top-producing beef cattle states. Harvey, a Category 4, and Irma, a Category 3, left significant damage in southeast Texas and many parts of Florida, as well some areas in Louisiana, Georgia and Alabama. It is estimated Hurricane Harvey alone caused more than $93 million in livestock losses, according to Texas A&M AgriLife Extension service economists.

Utah ‘ag gag’ statute declared unconstitutional

For the second time, a federal court judge held a state “ag gag” statute unconstitutional, only this time for the District of Utah. In 2012, Utah – along with several other states – passed a statute seeking to protect agricultural operations from undercover videos by animal rights groups.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and several individuals claimed the law violated their right to free speech and filed suit. In July, the court recognized the need to protect the agriculture industry – but not at the expense of the First Amendment. It has not been stated whether Utah plans to appeal this decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit.

NAFTA redrawn

Negotiations for the 23-year-old North American Free-Trade Agreement (NAFTA) crept to a standstill. While many of the trade aspects need modernization, at stake for the U.S. beef industry is its current ability to send duty-free beef to Canada and Mexico.

The fourth round of negotiations closed without resolution on many agricultural issues and, if NAFTA goes away, trade reverts to rules maintained by the World Trade Organization. Under that scenario, Canada assesses a 26.5 percent tariff on all beef imports, and Mexico assesses a 20 to 25 percent tariff. Although optimists hoped for a renegotiation settlement by December, late spring 2018 seems more likely.

WOTUS rescinded

In February, President Trump issued an executive order requiring the EPA and COE (Army Corps of Engineers) to “rescind or revise” the Waters of the U.S. Rule (WOTUS). In effect, it prevents the EPA and COE from broadly defining “navigable waters.”

It was a district-level court proceeding in the lawsuits that led to a 13-state “freeze” of the regulation, and the circuit-level cases were consolidated into one mega-case before the 6th Circuit, which issued a nationwide injunction. In a complicated legal tangle, the courts have been wrestling since then over which court has jurisdiction in the issue – district or circuit courts.

In June, the EPA announced it was taking the first step to rescind the 2015 rule and re-codify the definition of WOTUS. The Trump administration, working to repeal WOTUS, has said it will issue a rewritten version early next year. But the legal venue question has yet to be settled.  end mark

—Compiled by staff editors David Cooper, Cassidy Woolsey, Lynn Jaynes and Paul Marchant

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