By Steve Holland and Tom Polansek
WASHINGTON/CHICAGO (Reuters) - President Donald Trump said on Tuesday the United States should consider terminating trade deals under which it imports cattle as he looks to help U.S. ranchers hit hard by the coronavirus outbreak.
The United States imports cattle from Mexico and Canada to supplement domestic supplies at lower prices and to slaughter in American plants run by companies like Tyson Foods Inc <TSN.N> and JBS USA. Bans could reignite trade disputes.
"I read yesterday where we take some cattle in from other countries. We have trade deals. I think you should look at terminating those deals," Trump said. "We have a lot of cattle in this country."
Trump made the comments at a White House event held to discuss $19 billion in agricultural relief approved by Congress. He did not mention specific trade deals or countries when talking about cattle.
Live cattle imports come only from Mexico and Canada and are allowed under the terms of Trump's newly renegotiated North American trade pact.
"It was something I wish the president hadn't said," said Marty Smith, president of the U.S. National Cattlemen's Beef Association, who attended the event. He added the suggestion may have resulted from a misunderstanding.
Oswaldo Chazaro, head of Mexican cattle confederation CNOG, said that while he respected Trump's opinion, many years had been spent developing an integrated beef market in which all consumers benefit.
"More thought should be given to keeping this healthy, balanced trade in both directions," said Chazaro.
He added about 1.2 million Mexican cows were sold to U.S. buyers last year, while Mexican firms are buying growing volumes of U.S. beef.
A potential ban could increase competition for U.S. beef exports if Mexico and Canada keep more cattle at home and process them, said Derrell Peel, livestock marketing specialist at Oklahoma State University.
"Obviously, if we just ban Mexican and Canadian cattle, they're not going to take that kindly," Peel said.
Mexico's beef industry expects exports to the United States to grow by double digits this year after the pandemic hobbled American meat plants.
Last year, Mexico was the third-biggest foreign beef supplier to the United States, behind Australia and Canada.
The Canadian Cattlemen's Association described U.S.-Canada beef trade as both "integral" and "mutually beneficial" in a statement posted on its website.
Separately, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said the Trump administration would provide aid to ranchers who had been forced to euthanize livestock.
(Reporting by Steve Holland in Washington and Tom Polansek in Chicago; Additional reporting by David Alire Garcia in Mexico City, David Ljunggren and Kelsey Johnson in in Ottawa; Writing by Doina Chiacu and Tom Polansek; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Peter Cooney)