Agriculture Secretary Bob Bergland, saying there is little the government can do about rising beef prices, recommended yesterday that current restrictions on foreign meat imports be continued for at least 60 to 90 more days.
Bergland said after a meeting with President Carter's anti-inflation team that lifting the curbs would have no significant effect on prices but would have a "catastrophic" psychological impact on the nation's cattle industry. U.S. cattlemen have lost money in 15 of the last 23 quarters and are just now getting back on their feet, thanks to higher cattle prices, he said.
Bergland said he preferred to wait two to three months to see if the recent surge in beef prices abates.
With the administration committed to fighting inflation, however, some officials have counseled that an immediate end to the 1.3 billion pound quota on imported beef would show the president's determination. Charles L. Schultize, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, was reported to be leaning toward this outcome.
Administration economists say that lifting all import restrictions could lower the price of beef at the retail level by 2 to 5 cents a pound. The impact would be particularly strong on hamburger meat.
Bergland, Schultze, Carter's chief inflation fighter Robert S. Strauss, domestic adviser Stuart E. Eizenstat and representatives of the State and Treasury departments agreed to give Carter three options for consideration this weekend. These are to do nothing for 60 to 90 days, to remove all curbs immediately, or to negotiate somewhat higher "voluntary" quotas with the 13 countries that export beef to the United States.
These countries, led by Australia, New Zealand and Canada, have agreed to limit their beef shipments to the United States to 1.3 billion pounds in 1978 - about 7 percent of the nation's total beef consumption.
Bergland said the voluntary quotas could be raised by 200 million to 250 million pounds. This would have tactical, diplomatic advantages, since the United States is now trying to negotiate relaxed restrictions on all trade at multilateral trade talks in Geneva.
However, there was agreement yesterday that such a step would not have any lasting impact on domestic beef prices. For one thing, beef supplies are tight all over the world. Low prices for beef in the last four years forced ranchers and feedlot operators to reduce their herds sharply everywhere - except in the Soviet Union, a country that does not export beef. Therefore, less beef is available in world markets at a line when countries such as Japan are increasing their beef eating.
Any gains from increased imports must be weighed against the political and psychological impact on the western cattle industry, Bergland noted.
The Farmers Home Administration still has $500 million in loans outstanding to cattlemen, who borrowed heavily during the slump of the last four years.