Lawmakers lash Bush's Canada beef plan

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, February 4, 2005 (ENS): Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Agriculture Committee took aim Thursday at the Bush administration's plan to lift a 20 month ban on Canadian cattle and beef imports in March.

The move will harm the U.S. beef industry and do little to quell trade problems linked to concerns about mad cow disease, said lawmakers, who urged U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns to delay the plan.

"I don't understand why we are stuck on this date given that we have so many questions," said Senator Ken Salazar, a Colorado Democrat. "We should fix the rule before we open the border."

The rule redefines Canada as a "minimal risk region" for mad cow disease and reopens the U.S. market to imports of Canadian cattle less than 30 months of age.

Younger cattle are less likely to suffer from the fatal brain wasting disease, officially known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE).

The disease spreads from one animal to another by consumption of feed that has been contaminated by protein - such as blood or meat meal - from an infected animal.

Humans can come down with a parallel fatal brain wasting disease, variant Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease, by consuming beef from cattle infected with BSE.

The United States blocked all live Canadian cattle imports in May 2003, after the first native Canadian case of the disease was discovered.

The USDA announced the proposed rule in late December - since then two more cases of mad cow disease have been discovered in Canadian cattle.

The rule would also open the U.S. market to shipments of beef from Canadian cattle older than 30 months - a move critics say is inconsistent with public health concerns about the disease and potentially harmful to the U.S. meatpacking industry.

That part of the rule will encourage processors to slaughter older Canadian cattle and flood the U.S. market, driving down U.S. beef prices and costing American jobs, said Minnesota Democrat Mark Dayton.

"Your economic science is out of Mad Magazine," Dayton told USDA officials. "The rule rewards large processors for shifting their jobs from the United States to Canada … where they are literally going to make a killing."

USDA Chief Economist Keith Collins said the rule would cause "a moderate impact" on the U.S. beef industry - a contention that drew a heated response from Dayton.

The USDA's analysis estimates it will "cost U.S. cattle producers up to $2.9 billion in two to three years," Dayton said. "This is a disaster. You call that a moderate impact and I find that ignorant and offensive."

Lawmakers noted that several meatpacking companies, including Tyson Foods, the world's largest supplier of chicken, beef and pork, have cut operations at U.S. processing plants because of low demand and tight cattle supplies and indicated they will expand operations in Canada.

The concern prompted Montana Republican Senator Conrad Burns to introduce legislation Thursday to block beef imports from older Canadian cattle allowed under the rule.

Johanns said he also has some concern about the apparent inconsistency of the rule, but he vigorously defended the plan.

Both U.S. and Canadian regulators have committed to the "two essential firewalls" needed to protect human and animal health from BSE, Johanns said, the removal of specified risk material from the food supply and the ban on ruminant-to-ruminant feed material.

The U.S. and Canadian governments banned the use of cattle remains in feed for cattle, goats and sheep in August 1997.

USDA inspectors are currently assessing Canada's compliance with its mad cow regulations, Johanns said, including the feed ban.

USDA Chief Veterinarian Ron DeHaven called Canada's oversight "very effective."

"Their surveillance would be at least comparable to ours," DeHaven said.

But recent evidence suggests the Canadian feed ban is far from rigorous and is routinely allowing animal proteins into cattle feed.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has issued a series of import alerts, Canadian regulators have discovered problems with 10 feed mills, and more than 60 percent of recently tested samples of vegetarian animal feed manufactured in Canada contained "undeclared animal materials."

There are also concerns about U.S. oversight. Last month a USDA whistleblower outlined concerns about the removal of specified risk materials - the nervous system tissue believed mostly likely to carry infected material - from older cattle.

Johanns said the agency expects the first report on Canada's compliance with the feed ban by mid-month and indicated new information could prompt a change in course.

"The rule is on the road to implementation on [March 7], but I will consider everything right up to that date," he said.

But a revision to the rule appears unlikely - Johanns repeatedly said the rule protects public health and must not be crafted simply to prop up the U.S. meatpacking industry.

The marketplace "should determine cross border trading pattern," Johanns said. "The industry will restructure, it just is the nature of the beast and the economy."

"There is so much at stake here in terms of the international marketplace," Johanns said. "We must think about the long-term interests of the industry."

Key to the long-term health is setting up a policy that will enable the resumption of the U.S. beef trade with Asian nations, in particular Japan and South Korea, Johanns said.

Those nations shut their borders to U.S. beef in late December 2003, after a cow in the United States was found infected with mad cow disease.

Japan accounted for some $1.7 billion in U.S. beef exports in 2003 - all told the 41 percent of the industry's $7.5 billion export market is still closed, Johanns said.

Delaying the Canada rule would provide "another excuse to delay discussions and go back to square one in terms of opening the Japanese market," Johanns said.

Nebraska Democrat Ben Nelson said the new rule would do little to assure Japan and other nations that the closely integrated U.S. and Canadian beef industries have their houses in order.

"I am concerned that until the Canadian feed issue is resolved to the satisfaction of those markets, that the cloud remains," Nelson said.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2004. All Rights Reserved.

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