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USDA reportedly to allow Canada beef trade

Despite Canada’s discovery of another case of mad cow disease, the USDA will push ahead with its plan to reopen the border to more imports of Canadian cattle on March 7, an agricultural industry source said on Tuesday.
/ Source: Reuters

Despite Canada’s discovery of another case of mad cow disease, the U.S. Agriculture Department will push ahead with its plan to reopen the border to more imports of Canadian cattle on March 7, an agricultural industry source said on Tuesday.

“They are going to keep the rule,” said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity on the sidelines of the American Farm Bureau Federation annual meeting. The USDA was expected to release a statement later on Tuesday.

Withdrawal of the rule was discussed among USDA technical-level employees earlier in the day when news of the new Canadian mad cow case surfaced, but was not considered by agency leaders, the source said. 

Most U.S. farmers disagree
A majority of U.S. farmers surveyed by Reuters said they oppose a U.S. Agriculture Department decision to reopen the border in March to more imports of Canadian beef and cattle.

The USDA plan has been criticized by some lawmakers and ranchers who say the USDA must be cautious after a second case of mad cow disease was confirmed in Canada less than two weeks ago. The USDA contends it is safe to reopen the border because safeguards are in place to protect U.S. cattle and consumers.

A Reuters survey of 578 farmers attending the American Farm Bureau Federation's annual meeting found 55 percent said they disagreed with the USDA's plan to allow imports of Canadian cattle under 30 months of age beginning March 7. The 578 farmers were responding voluntarily in the poll from about 4,000 in attendance at the meeting.

The straw poll did not attempt to weigh responses by state, size of farm or other criteria. The Farm Bureau Federation is the nation's largest farm group, representing livestock producers and growers of cotton, wheat and soybeans.

On Monday, the U.S. cattle group R-Calf United Stockgrowers filed a federal lawsuit to block the USDA from lifting the ban. R-Calf said allowing Canadian beef imports is a risk for consumers, and would spark a sharp drop in cattle prices.

Farmers at the Farm Bureau Federation meeting expressed concern about the USDA moving too fast to reopen the border.

The USDA needs to get "control of things a little bit before they reopen it," said Todd Bingham, a Utah cattle farmer. "March 7 is rather quick. I think there needs to be more time spent on what was found in Canada before we open the border again."

Canada's first native case of mad cow disease -- or bovine spongiform encephalopathy -- was found in May 2003. It prompted the USDA to immediately ban all beef imports from Canada.

The first U.S. case, found in Washington state one year ago, also involved a cow born in Canada. Japan and other nations halted some $4 billion in annual U.S. beef exports.

Some experts say that by allowing beef imports from Canada to resume, the United States is setting a precedent for trade with nations battling mad cow. Such a move could help nudge big buyers such as Japan and South Korea into resuming purchases of U.S. beef, they say.

Farm Bureau Federation President Bob Stallman praised the way the USDA handled the mad cow beef case with Canada. Stallman said he supported the March border reopening, but added congressional oversight is needed.

"I think (the USDA) worked through the issue about as well as a difficult issue like that could be," Stallman said in an interview.

There is no cure for the brain-wasting disease. People can contract a human version of the disease by eating infected meat.

Testing program, feed ban
The Reuters survey also showed 72 percent of farmers questioned want the USDA to stop announcing "inconclusive" mad cow test results, and instead wait for final definitive tests on whether an animal is healthy or infected.

The beef industry and some consumer groups say the current USDA practice can trigger sharp fluctuations in commodity prices.

"I don't think we need the hype," said Kail Mantle, a Montana cattle farmer. The USDA should not excite "a bunch of people and cause them to be afraid of something that's not conclusive," he said.

Currently, the USDA makes an announcement when two rapid screening tests are "inconclusive" for the same animal. A final round of confirmatory tests takes four to seven days.

Last year, USDA preliminary tests on three animals produced "inconclusive" results, although more sophisticated tests by the USDA later found each animal was not infected.

The Reuters survey also found that farmers gave high marks to the USDA's expanded testing program. Some 86 percent of farmers questioned said they backed the USDA's testing program while 14 percent said more could be done.

The United States, which slaughters about 35 million head of cattle a year, plans to test at least 280,000 cattle during an 18-month period ending in December 2005. That is a tenfold increase from 2003.

Some 65 percent of farmers surveyed by Reuters also said they want the U.S. government to ban the use of cattle remains in feed for poultry and pigs as another step to prevent mad cow disease. The Food and Drug Administration has been considering such a move for more than a year.