Time has run out for those interested in having a say in whether or not Canadian cattle can resume their trek south of the border. After renewing debate on the subject, USDA's follow-up comment period on a proposed rule to re-open the United States' northern border closed April 7.

“We will work to examine the comments and we will do so as quickly as possible, and that would again open our market to the Canadian product more than it is open now, which is only to boneless boxed beef,” Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman recently told members of the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

A proposed USDA rule announced Oct. 31, 2003, would have amended the agency's bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) regulations to establish a new “minimal risk” category for those regions in which an animal has been diagnosed with BSE, also known as mad cow disease.

Regions allowed under the rule must have put into place specific preventive measures for an appropriate period of time reducing the risk of the disease being introduced to the United States. That would allow certain regions, including Canada, to once again import certain low-risk livestock and livestock products into the United States.

Animals allowed into the United States under the proposed rule include: cattle less than 30 months old for immediate slaughter, or to be fed and then slaughtered before they are 30 months old; sheep and goats that are less than 12 months of age for immediate slaughter, or to be fed and slaughtered before they are 12 months of age; hunter-harvested wild game, and some meat products such as calf liver and cow tongues.

Canada was essentially shut out of the U.S. beef market in May 2003 when a single case of BSE was discovered in Canada, and many in the cattle industry, and in Congress, continue to harbor concerns about re-opening that border.

Max Thornsberry, a Missouri cattle producer, veterinarian and chairman of R-CALF United Stockgrowers of America's BSE Committee, says, “U.S. cattle producers are disappointed that the USDA would even consider Canada in light of the fact they had two reported cases of BSE in Canadian native cattle in a nine-month period in 2003. One could hardly call this minimal risk.”

“It is also unclear why the USDA would consider opening U.S. imports to countries known to have BSE, while U.S. exports of beef are nearly shut down even though the U.S. has never had a case of BSE in a native cow.

“This makes the United States the potential dumping ground for foreign beef and cattle that other countries will not accept,” he says.

The National Cattlemen's Beef Association rarely sees eye-to-eye with R-CALF on policy issues, but in this case both organizations are expressing serious concerns with allowing Canadian cattle into the United States.

Jan Lyons, a Kansas cattle producer and president of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, says, “Free and fair trade can only be re-established with Canada when science and risk analysis tools are used to produce equitable policies that ensure the safety of cattle and beef.”

Specifically, Lyons says, the commodity group is concerned about the effects re-opening the border will have on U.S. cattle prices.

“U.S. cattle producers cannot afford harmful impacts on the domestic market from large movements of beef products or live cattle from Canada,” Lyons says. “Any reopening of the U.S. border must be done in a step-by-step process so as not to disrupt the domestic cattle market.

In addition, the group says, Canadian cattle must be permanently identified, cannot be allowed to enter U.S. breeding herd through feedlots, and must conform to the same animal health standards as cattle born and raised in the United States.

Sens. Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo., Pete Domenici, R-N.M., and Craig Thomas, R-Wyo., are asking Veneman to withdraw the proposed USDA rule.

“We believe it is premature to lift the ban on imports of live cattle from a country with two documented cases of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or Mad Cow disease, diagnosed within a seven-month period and urge you not to do so,” the senators said in a letter to Veneman.

Expressing their “deep concerns” about actions by USDA that they say are placing U.S. consumers and cattle producers at risk, the senators say, “It is apparent from developments over the past month that USDA policy regarding control of BSE is in a state of flux. While USDA appears determined to significantly increase its BSE testing, we are concerned that you are not requiring Canada to meet the same high standards and have, in fact, placed a much greater burden on U.S. cattle producers than on those who are the source of the contamination.

“While no native case of BSE has been discovered in the United States, USDA actions have increased the cost burden on our producers for BSE prevention. Such actions have not only made the United States less competitive in the global market from a cost standpoint, but have unduly increased the concerns of our trading partners over the safety of U.S. beef, even though there is no scientific evidence that BSE exists in our native cattle herds,” the senators' letter states.


e-mail: dmuzzi@primediabusiness.com