The Agriculture Department allowed American meatpackers to resume imports of ground and other "processed" beef from Canada last September, just weeks after it publicly reaffirmed its ban on importing those products because mad cow disease had been found in Canadian cattle.
In the next six months, a total of 33 million pounds of Canadian processed beef flowed to American consumers under a series of undisclosed permits the USDA issued to the meatpackers, permits that remained in effect until a federal judge intervened in April.
The imports -- which involved ground beef, cubed beef and some types of sausage -- were allowed despite the August 2003 announcement by Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman that she was extending an earlier ban on many types of Canadian beef.
Pressure from industry
Ever since the USDA briefly shut down all imports of Canadian beef in May 2003 after the mad cow discovery, the agency has been under great pressure from Canada and from large American meatpackers with plants across the border to loosen the restrictions, which hurt profits in both countries.
In her August announcement allowing importation of boneless beef to resume, Veneman said the risk that ground beef might contain the mad cow infection was too great to allow it in. She and her top deputies said ground beef imports would resume only after the agency completed a formal rulemaking process, with public debate.
According to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, however, processed beef began reentering the United States from Canada the next month, and 33 million pounds were imported over the next six months, mostly through Buffalo. USDA spokeswoman Andrea McNally said the imports included ground beef, hamburger patties, pepperoni, and fat and meat "trim" from fancier cuts.
McNally said that although the border was officially closed to those beef products, the agency made exceptions when it "concluded that certain products would not pose a health risk because of risk mitigations" taken by meat processors. Those included accepting only cattle less than 30 months old and procedures to remove nervous-system tissue from carcasses before they were processed.
Although the risk to humans from eating infected beef is considered extremely low, the human form of the brain-destroying disease is fatal and incurable. Only about 150 people worldwide are known to have acquired the disease from eating infected beef, almost all of them in Europe.
33 million pounds imported
According to McNally, importation of Canadian processed beef was stopped again late last month. That decision was triggered by a ruling by a federal judge in Montana that the USDA had, on April 19, improperly allowed an announced expansion of Canadian beef imports. At the time, there was no public discussion of the earlier permits.
The court ruling came in a lawsuit by the Ranchers Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, a group of cattle producers opposed to wide imports. Bill Bullard, the group's chief executive, said that after an attorney for the USDA acknowledged that the agency had been issuing permits for processed-beef imports, his group sought to find out more precisely what had been brought in and where.
Using statistics compiled by the Census Bureau and the USDA's Foreign Agricultural Service, Bullard said, they determined that 33 million pounds of processed beef were imported from Canada between September and March, along with 3.4 million pounds of bone-in beef and 440,000 pounds of tongue. None of those products were allowed under the restrictions Veneman announced in August.
"I think they've been irresponsible," Bullard said. "I think they have unnecessarily placed the U.S. cattle industry and consumers at risk."
While the 33 million pounds made a lot of hamburgers, pepperoni and hot dogs, they represent a tiny fraction of the beef eaten by Americans. Last year, more than 3 billion pounds of beef were imported.
Bullard said few in the meat industry seemed to know that Canadian processed beef and other products that were not on the officially sanctioned list had been coming into the United States since September. The USDA said it could not disclose which American importers had received the permits.
Ignoring its own rules
Mad cow disease, also known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, is believed to be concentrated in the brain and central nervous system, and meat closer to those tissues is considered to be at highest risk. The least hazardous cuts are believed to be boneless ones containing only muscle. Bone-in cuts and ground beef are considered more hazardous.
Because the agent that causes the disease takes a long time to become active and dangerous, meat from animals younger than 30 months is believed to be safe.
In his ruling against the USDA, U.S. District Judge Richard F. Cebull wrote that the agency appeared to be ignoring its own rules and pronouncements.
"The Court is concerned by the manner in which, according to counsel for USDA, USDA has been authorizing imports of virtually all edible bovine meat products, apparently through issuing individual permits, at a time when it was assuring the public that such authorization would take place through the rulemaking process," he wrote on April 26, when he issued a temporary restraining order against the agency.
Mad cow disease was first found last May in a cow in Alberta, and then in another Canadian-born cow that was slaughtered in Washington state in December.