Beef ban causing backups - Unable to deliver, truck drivers abandon cargo at Mexico border

 

January 6, 2004

 

By Sonny Lopez, Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News

businessnews@dallasnews.com

 

Ciudad Juarez, Mexico - Several tons of cow carcasses and beef products baked in the airtight confines of semi-trailers Monday after truck drivers abandoned their cargo near the foot of an international bridge.

The truckers marooned their loads after learning they would not be allowed to reach their final destinations.

Since Mexico curtailed beef imports from the United States, truckers carrying beef products have been turned away, and some say they can't afford to leave without making their deliveries.

"I can't believe they want me to drive for no pay. That is what they are asking me to do because I just paid all the fees to cross the border, about $250 in fuel and all of my time," said Carlos Medrano Silva, an independent trucker who left a 53-foot trailer with Alaska license plates by the roadside Sunday.

Ron DeHaven, the Agriculture Department's chief veterinarian, said Monday that USDA officials will visit Mexico to discuss the ban on American beef products, which was announced on December 24, right after news broke that the first U.S. case of mad cow disease was suspected.

This weekend, at least two other truck drivers were forced off the road in Ciudad Juarez and left their trailers and cargo in a lot less than 100 yards from the Bridge of the Americas. All three trucks were refrigerated but had been disconnected from their power sources inside the truck cabs.

The cargo Mr. Medrano Silva was hauling gave off a foul smell, exacerbated by this weekend's springlike temperatures.

"The officials told me I had to turn around or go to jail, so I put the trailer in a dirt lot, unhooked it and left it there. I called my boss to let him know where the trailer is. I'm out a lot of money just because some official thinks there might be a problem."

He refused to identify the company he was working for.

A Mexican customs official who declined to be named said the drivers were not threatened with jail but were asked to leave their vehicles so they could be inspected.

"The trailers were quarantined so that we could inspect the cargo. That's all," said the official.

"Everything is official and under control."

Officials with Mexico's Agriculture Ministry, which determines food safety measures, did not return phone calls on Monday seeking comment.

 

Export collapse

 

About 90 percent of U.S. beef is sold at home, but companies involved in exports saw an overnight collapse of their business last month after Japan, Mexico and about 30 other countries banned U.S. cattle.

The United States exports about $3.5 billion worth of beef and beef products each year.

Japan is the biggest importer of U.S. beef, and officials there suggested Monday that they would hold out for stricter screening of livestock before lifting their ban.

 

Confusion

 

The ban is also causing confusion and backups in the shipping industry. The fate of nearly 2,000 containers of beef and beef products that were exported before December 23 is unclear.

About 800 of those containers have been warehoused in Japan and other Asian countries, according to the U.S. Meat Export Federation, which is based in Denver. "It's going to be difficult to return," said spokeswoman Lynn Heinze.

The remainder is primarily scattered among cargo ships still at sea, Ms. Heinze said, although some containers are stacked up at ports from Los Angeles to Seattle.

Spoilage on those shipments is not the most immediate concern, since fresh beef has a refrigerated shelf life of about two months.

It wasn't clear Monday whether Mexican customs officials were inspecting the cargo of all the semi-trucks entering the country specifically for beef products. Thousands of the large transports line the roadway on the east side of the Bridge of the Americas every day, and the row of trucks stretches for nearly a mile on Fridays and Saturdays.

Inez Torres Hurtado, an independent Mexican truck driver, said the loss of the beef cargo he was carrying on Saturday will force him to sell his prized semi-truck, on which he was three payments past due.

"I can't believe that I took this job at the last minute only to lose everything," Mr. Torres Hurtado said after leaving the trailer he was hauling in the same dirt lot as the other drivers. He also declined to identify the company he was driving for.

"I was getting paid top dollar for this, and I could have kept my truck, but now that's not going to happen. I paid my last dollar to a state cop as a bribe to let me make it to the border. I guess this disease they are talking about must be some pretty bad stuff. I'm going to throw away the steaks they gave me before something else bad happens to me."

Sonny Lopez is a freelance writer based in El Paso. Staff writers Katie Fairbank in Dallas and Brendan Case in Mexico City and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

 

Copyright 2004, Dallas Morning News. 

 

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