WASHINGTON – Bob Wilts was 10 years old when the Big Lake, Minn., farm where he grew up got its first beef cow. Fast forward 45 years to today, and Wilts still lives in Big Lake. He still raises cattle.

Wilts and his wife, Judy, manage about 30 steers that they sell to individual families and stockyards annually.

But Wilts and other Minnesota ranchers worry about something that they say could threaten their livelihoods and the integrity of the U.S. beef market.

At the end of June, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that it was lifting bans on chilled or frozen beef from Argentina and 14 Brazilian states for the first time since 2001, when foot-and-mouth disease was detected among cattle in those South American countries.

"Beef is high [priced in the U.S.]," Wilts said. "I know that. You go to the store and meat is expensive. But the cow herds are coming back. To risk bringing in a disease that could basically start wiping out everything … to me, it's not worth the risk to save a few bucks."

Where ranchers in Minnesota and across the country see a problem, trade experts see a product that is safe and a ban that has been in place for far too long. The USDA says the areas approved for trading have been disease free since 2007.

Despite concerns like Wilts', the World Trade Organization (WTO) handed Argentina a win on July 24 in a ruling that stated the U.S. continuing to ban imports of beef was unlawful and an act of protectionism.

Bill Watson, a trade policy analyst at the Cato Institute, said he doesn't see a reason to be ­concerned about beef safety.

"The reason the ban is being lifted is because it's safe," Watson said. "It has been recognized internationally as safe for quite a while. The [WTO] decision was that the ban itself is protectionist; it's not designed to deal with an actual safety problem, but just to keep prices up and protect producers from competition."

Protectionist policies drive up prices in a way that is bad for U.S. consumers, Watson explained. "If it's a question of food safety then there might be a justification," he continued. "But if it's just to keep prices high, then that's not helping American consumers at all."

Nevertheless, renewing Argentine and Brazilian beef imports has drawn the ire of the nation's powerful farmers' lobby, and politicians have paid heed.

Only a few days after the USDA announced the lifted ban, the Senate appropriations committee passed a bill to delay funding for reinstating Brazilian and Argentine beef sales until the Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack jumps through a new set of time-consuming regulatory hoops.

Before any money gets spent, the secretary must update a comprehensive risk evaluation for importing the Argentine and Brazilian products. But he must also update the entire Animal Disease Risk Assessment, Prevention, and Control Act of 2001. And he must report to Congress a specific plan for responding to an animal disease outbreak.

In mid-July, a House Appropriations Agriculture Subcommittee amendment to an agriculture appropriations bill contained similar language.

The White House found this delaying tactic so offensive that last week Shaun Donovan, director of the Office of Management and Budget, wrote to Senate appropriators to complain. He argued that the beef import rules would benefit the U.S. economy and that completing the requirements listed in the bill "would, at a minimum, delay the implementation of the rules, potentially by years."

According to the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, foot-and-mouth disease — sometimes called hoof-and-mouth disease — is a "severe, highly contagious viral disease" that can be passed between animals. Although the disease is not usually fatal, USDA says animals affected are not likely to produce milk or meat the way they did before being infected.

The disease has been eradicated from the United States since 1929, but has been present in more recent years in animals throughout Africa, South America, Asia and some areas in Europe, according to the USDA.

Like Wilts, Doug Peterson, president of the Minnesota Farmers Union, raises the example of the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in England in 2001 as a point of concern. The outbreak spread across the country and caused the meat and dairy industries billions of dollars in losses.

Peterson doesn't buy the claims that Argentine and Brazilian beef is safe. There are, he said, "no standards or protocol that can ensure these are a disease free product."

"You spend all the money on developing a brand, an American-branded beef, then you allow countries with a history of hoof-and-mouth disease to import?" Peterson asked. "It's just a matter of watering down the market and some large corporation making the money, not the farmer."

In addition to USDA efforts, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is crafting new guidelines "to ensure the safety of imported foods." The proposed program would require that "foreign entities demonstrate imported food meets U.S. food safety requirements," according to an FDA news release.

The release also states the agency will look at current accreditation processes to avoid unnecessary overlap. The proposed guidelines are set to be available for public comment 75 days from the July 23 announcement, according to the FDA.

USDA officials say they feel confident that the South American regions will export beef to the United States without creating problems here.

However, imports will not begin immediately.

They will have to wait until the Agriculture Department conducts the updated risk evaluation of importing beef from these regions and assesses Brazilian and Argentine regulatory programs, as well as conducting assessments in the regions. Then there's the check list presented by the Senate and House.

Wilts welcomes the delays. Watson questions their necessity.

"I'm not a farmer," said Watson of the Cato Institute. "I don't know how nervous I would be if I was. But my understanding is that these products are not considered unsafe elsewhere in the world. They are being exported around the world, and there hasn't been a problem or a spread [of foot-and-mouth disease]. I'm not worried about it … it doesn't seem to me that there's any real evidence that [farmers] should be."

Courtney Kueppers • 202-383-6121