Mad Cow Case: Court unblocks cattle imports from Canada

SEATTLE, Washington, July 14, 2005 (ENS): The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals today overturned a preliminary injunction preventing live Canadian cattle from being imported into the United States issued by a federal judge in Montana last March.

The injunction was imposed by Judge Richard Cebull in a case brought by the cattle industry organization R-CALF USA. The cattlemen sought to keep Canadian cattle out of the United States after mad cow disease was found in several Canadian animals.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) closed the border to Canadian animals in May 2003 after mad cow disease, formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, was found in an Alberta cow. The first U.S. case of the disease was found in December 2003 in an animal imported from Canada.

Because mad cow disease takes years to develop and occurs in older animals, the USDA had planned to reopen the border to Canadian cattle under 30 months of age, under a rule the agency issued last December that classifies Canada as a "minimal risk" country for mad cow disease. The minimal risk ruling was offered to Canada because the USDA says sanitary practices and testing are now sufficient to keep the disease out of the food supply.

The border was to reopen on March 7, until R-CALF was granted the preliminary injunction.

R-CALF USA CEO Bill Bullard said, “R-CALF is confident that when we have a full hearing on the merits of the case, we will demonstrate to the district court that USDA’s actions are premature and unjustified."

"R-CALF USA remains confident that USDA’s Final Rule was not justified," said Bullard, "and that USDA did not provide significant justification for overturning a longstanding policy that protected both the U.S. cattle herd and U.S. consumers from the introduction of BSE."

“USDA’s Final Rule is based merely on a reinterpretation of existing science that has been around for years," Bullard said. "USDA is motivated by political considerations of wanting to resume trade with Canada."

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns applauded the appeals court's decision. "Because the ruling is effective immediately, we are immediately taking steps to resume the importation of cattle under 30 months of age from Canada," he said.

"USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service is already in contact with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to prepare to certify cattle for shipment. We have been safely importing boneless boxed beef from Canada since September 2003, and now we will use the scientific approach laid out in our minimal risk rule to once again safely import live Canadian cattle for processing."

"This is great news for the future of the U.S. beef industry, specifically the many ranchers, feeders, and processing plants that have been struggling to make ends meet due to the closed border," said Johanns. "It also bolsters our position with other international trading partners by following the very advice we have given them to base trade decisions on sound science."

Johanns has been negotiating with Japan, China and other trading partners to get them to lift their trading bans on U.S. beef imposed in December 2003.

"This is wonderful news that has been long awaited," says Stan Eby, president of the Canadian Cattlemen's Association, representing over 90,000 Canadian cattle producers.

"The Court has taken a huge step toward re-establishing normal trade in live cattle and beef products and has recognized the science-based and proper regulatory approach taken by the United States Department of Agriculture. I hope that all the necessary paperwork will soon be in place so that we may see the first shipments of cattle crossing the border in short order."

Mad cow disease and its human form, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, are spread by prions - abnormally shaped proteins that originate as regular components of neurological tissues in animals.

Mad cow disease spreads from one animal to another by consumption of feed that has been contaminated by these proteins, contained in the nervous system tissues of an infected animal. The human form of the disease can be transmitted if a human being eats BSE infected meat, or through blood transfusions. About 150 people have died worldwide from the disease.

At a press conference after the ruling, the American Meat Institute's General Counsel Mark Dopp offered assurances that beef, American and Canadian, is safe. He was more concerned with the economic impact of the border closure. “A number of facilities across the country, mainly in the northern tier, are running at 80 to 85 percent of capacity, working five days instead of six, and some plants have gone dark because there just aren’t enough cattle,” said Dopp.

The hearing into R-CALF's application for a permanent injunction against the import of Canadian cattle will still go ahead on July 27 in U.S. District Court, Montana Division.

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