Cattlemen say U.S. has relaxed its standards too far
By TIM HEARDEN
Some 40 farm and consumer groups are sounding an alarm over the import of some beef products from Canada, which has had 17 cases of bovine spongiform encephalopathy since 2003.
A coalition that includes the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America is upset by the USDA's plan to allow imports of beef from animals more than 30 months old.
In a status report to a South Dakota federal judge, the USDA indicated it plans to adopt import standards for cattle and beef that are "closely aligned" with those of the World Organization for Animal Health.
The body's Office of International Epizootics recommends that imports from "controlled BSE risk" countries such as Canada be allowed under certain conditions, including that prohibited skull and vertebral column materials be removed from the carcasses of cattle older than 30 months.
But R-CALF believes that accepting cattle and beef older than 30 months from Canada poses an "unacceptable risk" to the U.S. cattle industry and trade, organization Chief Executive Officer Bill Bullard said.
"The OIE's purpose is to facilitate trade even when a disease outbreak occurs," Bullard said. "We believe the OIE standards are inadequate and ineffective in protecting the U.S. cattle industry and U.S. consumers from the introduction of BSE from Canada, which is a country known to have multiple cases of BSE after Canada implemented mitigation measures."
Canadian Cattlemen's Association President Brad Wildeman dismisses R-CALF's complaints as "protectionist," adding that Canada removes more risk materials from the carcasses of older cattle than is recommended.
"We've gone to a much more aggressive strategy to eliminate this disease," including a comprehensive mandatory tracking system for cattle that the U.S. lacks, Wildeman said.
R-CALF and the other groups -- including the Cattle Producers of Washington and the Oregon Livestock Producers Association -- voiced their concerns in a Nov. 17 letter to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
The letter was the latest skirmish in an aggressive legal battle that R-CALF has waged against Canadian imports since BSE -- more commonly referred to as mad cow disease -- was discovered there more than six years ago.
The U.S. was barred from importing cattle and some beef products from Canada until July 2005, when the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned an injunction previously won by R-CALF.
As a result of a later lawsuit, the USDA is required to provide quarterly reports of its plan to revamp its import rules. In its latest filing Oct. 5, the agency noted it received more than 4,800 pages of responses to its September 2008 request for comments.
Canada's Wildeman said the OIE has the input of 153 countries and uses "clear and accepted" science in developing its standards. He said it would be hypocritical for the U.S. to urge other trading partners such as Taiwan to follow OIE guidelines and not do so in trading with Canada.
The point is valid, offers Colin Woodall, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association's vice president of government affairs.
"The OIE, being the World Organization for Animal Health, has been in the middle of BSE since it first broke," Woodall said. "Their standards have been based on sound science that is peer reviewed, and we're very supportive of their standards and what they're doing. We don't think we need to go any further."