The USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) has issued a proposal to allow the importation of uncooked pork and pork products from designated regions in Mexico where classical swine fever (CSF) is considered to exist if the shipments originate in an area free of the disease.
Labour costs in pork processing plants are nine times lower in Mexico than the US.
Since the phase in of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) from 1994, companies have been using plants in Mexico for slaughtering and processing their pork supplies. The processed pork is then re-imported back into the US for use by the companies or for distribution.
However re-occuring outbreaks of classical swine fever (CSF) in Mexico has led the USDA to impose restrictions on all pork imports into the US. An improvement in animal health in Mexico prompted the USDA in 2006 to declare many regions of Mexico low or free of risk.
APHIS is making the proposal in a public consultation. The USDA will then make the decision based on comments.
Currently the US only allows imports pork products if they had been cooked or cured prior to leaving Mexico. The allowance includes imports from Mexican states where CSF is considered to exist.
Under the current proposal, uncooked pork and pork products sent to CSF-affected regions for processing and then shipped to the US must be in closed containers sealed with serially numbered seals.
The shipments would have to be accompanied by a certificate that specifies the products' region of origin, the slaughtering plant, the place from where the products were shipped, the name of the importer, and the seal numbers on the shipping containers.
Nicholas Giordano, international trade counsel to the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC said that the organisation supports lifting the current restrictions.
"In the case of the proposed rule regarding pork and Mexico, we see no basis in science to oppose the rule," he told FoodProductionDaily.com yesterday. "To oppose any science based initiative that is supported by science would be contrary to open trade principles and counterproductive for our producers."
CSF, also known as hog cholera, is a highly contagious viral disease of swine. The most common method of transmission is direct contact between healthy swine and those infected with CSF. The disease can also be transmitted through contact with body secretions and excrement from infected animals.
CSF was eradicated from the United States in 1978 after a 16-year effort by the industry and state and federal governments. CSF does not affect human health.
In recent years, the government of Mexico put in place programs to eradicate export-limiting swine diseases and to upgrade slaughter and processing facilities to meet US standards, according to a 2006 report on the industry by researchers at Iowa State University.
In 2005, there were 160 pork slaughter plants in Mexico that met those standards, representing an increase of 385 per cent from the number reported in 1999, the researchers stated.
The approved plants had a combined capacity to process 21,950 head per eight-hour shift, or 6.8m head per year. In 2003, the approved plants slaughtered about 4.7m head, an increase of about 271 percent compared to 1991.
From 1998 to 2004, on average, about 2 percent of all hogs slaughtered in TIF plants were finished hogs from the US.
About 43 percent of all hogs slaughtered in the plants were slaughtered in the state of Sonara, 21 percent in the state of Mexico, 14 percent in Guanajuato, and 11 percent in Yucatan.
US Department of Labor statistics show that in 2003 average compensation costs for production workers in food, beverage, and tobacco manufacturing were $2.24 per hour compared to $18.61 per hour in the US.
US meat industry labor costs typically account for about 50 per cent of total in-plant and administrative costs in pork slaughter and processing. About 50 to 60 per cent of that figure corresponds to labor costs for production workers, the Iowa researchers said.
The deadline for comments on the USDA proposal is March 6.