Montana Cattle Group Seeks to Block Imports of Canadian Cattle

By Beacon Staff

YAKIMA, Wash. (AP) – Canadian cattle over 30 months of age will be allowed into the U.S. market starting Monday, despite criticism from some domestic ranchers worried about mad cow disease.

No one knows for sure how the decision will affect U.S. ranchers or foreign markets, which have yet to fully recover from the discovery of an infected cow in 2003.

One Montana-based cattlemen’s group didn’t wait to find out, filing an emergency request Friday for a temporary restraining order to block the rule from taking effect.

In May 2003, the United States closed the border to cattle imports from Canada after an Alberta cow was confirmed with mad cow disease, known scientifically as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE.

The border between the world’s largest trade partners reopened for Canadian beef from younger cattle within months of the original ban, and live cattle under the age of 30 months have been allowed to move across the border since July 2005.

But the border has remained closed to older cattle until now. Agriculture officials have said the change is firmly based in science and ensures that U.S. regulators will protect the country against the disease.

Critics counter that the federal government has failed to fully investigate the potential impact to U.S. ranchers and their export markets.

The Montana Farmers Union said Monday that it “strongly opposes” the weakening of import regulations regarding Canadian cattle over 30 months old.

“The main problem with allowing older cattle into the food chain is that they carry a higher risk of having BSE than do younger animals,” the group said in a written statement. “We do not believe the risk is acceptable to consumers or to beef cattle ranchers throughout the United States.”

More than two dozen nations suspended beef imports from the U.S. after a cow in Mabton, Wash., tested positive for the brain-wasting disease in December 2003. The cow’s origins were later traced to Canada, but the United States has recovered less than 60 percent of its beef export markets to date.

The value of beef exports in 2003 was $3.855 billion. That fell to $807 million in 2004, but rose to $1.9 billion through the first nine months of 2007.

Two other cases of mad cow disease have been discovered in the U.S. since 2003. There have been 10 cases in Canada.

“The risk is still very real — in the event that we import an infected animal — our industry is vulnerable to tremendous financial harm as a result of this rule,” said Bill Bullard, chief executive officer of R-CALF United Stockgrowers of America, a cattlemen’s group that has been fighting it.

R-CALF, based in Billings, Mont., filed an emergency request Friday for a temporary restraining order in U.S. District Court in South Dakota to block the rule from taking effect.

Gregg Doud, chief economist for another farm group, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, countered that the United States can’t expect higher standards from trading partners than it’s willing to impose on itself.

“From a beef perspective, our Asian customers have long viewed this as a North American deal,” Doud said. “They’ve said, ‘Why are you asking something of us that you’re not willing to give to Canada?’ There’s no answer to that.”

Mad cow disease has been linked to variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a rare and deadly nerve disease that has been blamed for more than 150 human deaths, mostly in Britain.

Canadian cattlemen are unlikely to immediately begin shipping more cattle south of the border, for a number of reasons, said John Masswohl, director of government and international relations for the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association.

Canada now slaughters most of its own cattle, since processors in the United States that had relied heavily on Canadian cattle imports before 2003 closed.

In addition, the new rule allowing older cattle requires that the animals’ birth dates be confirmed. It’s unlikely many beef producers will have that information on older cattle, barring them from being shipped to the U.S., he said.

“Theoretically, there are big numbers of cattle that fit that regulated eligible window, but when you get into the practicalities of how the business works, you’re just not going to see very many,” he said.

Older cattle carry a higher risk of having mad cow disease than younger animals. Scientists believe the disease is spread when farmers feed cattle with recycled meat and bones from infected animals.

Since 2003, both countries have been taking steps to prevent the disease and better trace livestock in the event of an outbreak. They include barring high-risk animal parts from feed for cattle. Canada has also since barred those parts from other feed, such as poultry, to avoid the potential for cross-contamination.

The United States has not yet implemented that ban.