David Kravets of the Associated Press reports that the U.S. Department of Agriculture insists it’s safe to resume the imports of Candian cattle, despite a ruling by a Montana federal judge who sided with U.S. ranchers warning about dire economic and health consequences from a mad cow outbreak in the United States.
A panel from the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals travels to Seattle on Wednesday to hear the Bush administration’s challenge to the judge’s ruling.
Mad cow disease is the common name for bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE. People who eat meat tainted with BSE can contract a degenerative, fatal brain disorder called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. More than 150 people have died from it following a 1986 outbreak in the United Kingdom.
The dispute between ranchers – whose profits have improved slightly without Canadian competition – and feedlots and packers – which have fewer cows to feed and slaughter without Canadian supplies – became more complicated two weeks ago, when the government revealed that a 12-year-old cow born in Texas tested positive for BSE.
Ranchers, who back a ban put in place ban since a Canadian-born cow tested positive for mad cow disease in Washington state in 2003, said the infected Texas cow shows the continued need for a closed border, to prevent an epidemic.
But Philip Olsson of the National Meat Association, a trade group representing packers, processors, equipment manufacturers and suppliers, said the Texas cow deflates the ranchers’ argument that consumers would lose their appetite for U.S. meat if Canadian cattle were allowed in.
Some industry watchdogs say the argument is really all about profits, not consumer health. After all, Canadian and U.S. cattle had been cross breeding for so many years before the borders were closed that they are equally at risk, according to The Center for Media and Democracy in Madison, Wis., an advocacy group that has closely followed the issue.
The situation has left U.S. ranchers facing down packers and feedlots across a litigious divide.
“One fear if they let those cattle come in, and more cases of BSE turn up, we could lose consumer confidence, and people are going to shy away from us,” said Jon Wooster, who operates a family owned cattle ranch in the Central California town of San Lucas.
Wooster said he now sells his cattle for more than 80 cents a pound, and was getting more than $1, up from about 70 cents right before Canadian cows were banned.
On the other side, profits have declined at packers and feedlots, which have fewer cows to feed and process. They say Canada’s cattle is safe, and that the ranchers’ are more interested in monopolizing supplies than protecting the meat-eating public.
Cody Easterday runs a feedlot that has been in his family for three generations outside of Pasco, Wash. He says he may go out of business rather than purchase cows 1,500 miles away in the Midwest, compared to about 550 miles in Alberta, Canada.
“It’s pretty bleak,” he said. “The local processor here is only running about 24 hours a week, compared to 40 to 48 hours a week before. “We all know that the cattle from Canada is safe. This is protectionism.”
The National Meat Association says its members have lost $1.7 billion in revenue because of fewer cows being processed in the U.S., idling some packing houses and prompting layoffs.
Americans’ appetite for beef is being supplemented by imports, including Canadian beef processed to remove BSE-susceptible parts including brains, bones, eyes and spinal cords before crossing the border.
The ranchers have found allies in some state leaders – Montana, Connecticut, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota and South Dakota oppose reopening the border. Mike McGrath, Montana’s attorney general, said the USDA’s position places meat eaters at risk from contaminated food.
Several countries have banned U.S. beef imports as they previously did Canadian imports. While some have relaxed restrictions, Japan, the largest foreign market for U.S. beef in 2003, has not. In 2002, Canada shipped 1.6 million cattle to the United States, its largest foreign market.
Canada and the United States each test about 1 percent of the herd at slaughter, compared to 25 percent by the European Union and 100 percent in Japan, said Diane Farsetta, a senior researcher at the center whose work supported the 1997 book, “Mad Cow USA: Could the Nightmare Happen Here?”
“Just looking at it strictly from the health perspective, neither Canada nor the United States is doing what it needs to do,” Farsetta said. “There is an artificial political and economic distinction being made between the two countries right now.”
The cases are Ranchers Cattlemen Action Legal Fund United Stockgrowers of America v. USDA, 05-35264, and National Meat Association v. USDA, 05-35214.