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Ag secretary sees cattle trade resuming

/ Source: staff and news service reports

Just days after Canada confirmed its second case of mad cow disease and one day after an Alberta farm was quarantined, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman indicated Tuesday she fully expects cattle trading with the northern neighbor to resume on schedule.

Veneman said she did not foresee a scenario that would stop imports of Canadian cattle resuming on March 7 as planned.

“It would be hard for me to envision at this point the process not moving forward as has been announced,” Veneman said in remarks to reporters.

On Sunday, Canada confirmed its second case of mad cow disease, just days after the USDA said it planned to reopen the U.S. border to Canadian live cattle under 30 months of age and additional kinds of beef.

The USDA has said that, even with Canada’s new case, adequate safeguards were in place on both sides of the border to stop the spread of mad cow disease.

“We believe that the rule is based upon good analysis, sound science and a thorough risk analysis,” Venetian told reporters after addressing a celebration of the U.S. Forest Service’s 100th anniversary.

Potential roadblocks
The plan to expand bilateral cattle and beef trade, which was interrupted in May 2003 by the discovery of Canada’s first domestic case of mad cow disease, faces a couple of possible roadblocks.

Congress has until March 7 to review the trade plan. If enough lawmakers express reservations, the USDA might be pressured to delay the regulation. So far, only a couple members of Congress have publicly stated their opposition.

Also, at least two farm groups, R-CALF USA and the National Farmers Union, have challenged the USDA’s plan.

R-CALF USA has said it is considering a lawsuit to stop the border opening, claiming the expanded trade could threaten U.S. consumers and American cattle herds.

R-CALF USA Chief Executive Bill Bullard on Monday accused the USDA of failing to follow international guidelines in designating Canada a “minimal risk” country for mad cow disease.

He said Canada has not had stringent controls on animal feed long enough to earn that designation.

Minimal risk?
The department based its decision to lift the ban on guidelines set by the World Health Organization showing Canada to be a minimal risk and took into consideration the possibility of additional mad cow cases in Canada, said spokeswoman Alisa Harrison.

Under the WHO guidelines, Harrison said, a country with 5.5 million head of cattle over 24 months of age, such as Canada, would still be considered a minimal risk if had 11 cases of mad cow disease in a year.

Still Canada seemed to be holding its breath. The country sold more than 70 percent of its live cattle to the United States before the ban — a market worth $1.5 billion in 2002.

Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin spoke to President Bush on Friday about the new suspected case and Bush assured him that his administration was committed to reopening the border, a Canadian official said on condition of anonymity.

Since BSE was first diagnosed in Britain in 1986, there have been more than 180,000 cases of the chronic, degenerative disorder.

The decision to allow Canadian cows into the United States in light of the latest scare brought sharp responses from several Democratic lawmakers last week.

Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., called the decision “outrageous” and accused the Agriculture Department leadership of caring “more about the interests of mega-feed lots and processors than the interests of farmers, ranchers and consumers.”

Ron DeHaven, administrator of the agriculture department’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, has said beef brought into the United States will be subject to both Canadian and U.S. inspection.

New rules in effect
The USDA ruling, effective March 7, came with conditions. Canadian cattle must be slaughtered by the age of 30 months, which scientists say is too young to contract mad cow disease, and they must be transported in sealed containers.

The discovery in Washington state a year ago is the only confirmed case of mad cow disease in the United States. There have been a handful of suspected mad cow cases during preliminary screening in the United States, but more sophisticated tests produced negative results. Still, the USDA acknowledges that another mad cow case is likely to be discovered among the 40 million adult cattle in the United States.

Stan Eby, the President of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, expressed confidence that the Bush administration wouldn’t change its mind.

“They made a very strong comment regarding this last week. We feel quite confident that the U.S. will follow through on their planned schedule,” he said.

Darcy Davis, chair of Alberta Beef Producers, said the new case should not cause too much concern among Canadian beef producers.

“It’s an ongoing concern with BSE, but at the same time we have the safeguards in place and we’re handling it scientifically now and we know that we have an extremely low incidence,” Davis said.

Investigators have identified the infected cow’s farm of origin and on Sunday were trying to identify any other infected animals — specifically, recently born offspring and cattle born on the same farm within a year of the infected animal.