Mar 4, 2005 (CIDRAP News) A federal judge in Montana this week delayed a plan to reopen the US border to Canadian cattle for the first time since bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) was found in Canada.
The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) had planned to reopen the border to live Canadian cattle under 30 months of age on Mar 7. But on Mar 2, US District Judge Richard Cebull in Billings, Mont., ordered the government to delay that move on grounds that it could increase human exposure to BSE, or mad cow disease, in the United States.
Cebull issued the temporary injunction in a lawsuit brought by a livestock industry group, R-CALF United Stockgrowers of America (R-CALF USA). He asserted that Canadian beef poses a higher risk of BSE exposure than American beef because the disease has been found in several Canadian cows but not in any American-bred cows. (The single US case of BSE so far was in a cow born in Alberta.)
"Allowing the import of Canadian cattle into the U.S. increases the potential for human exposure to the material containing the agent for BSE in this higher-risk meat," Cebull wrote, as quoted in the Toronto Globe and Mail.
The United States has barred importation of live Canadian cattle since May 2003, when Canada's first BSE case was discovered. In late December 2004, the USDA announced its plan to reopen the border to young Canadian cattle, saying Canada was a "minimal risk" region for BSE. Because BSE has a long incubation period, experts believe it is next to impossible for cattle younger than 30 months to have infective levels of disease.
Ironically, two more BSE cases were discovered in Alberta within 2 weeks after the USDA plan was announced. Those discoveries fueled opposition to the plan.
Senate votes to keep border closed
Yesterdaythe day after Cebull's rulingthe USDA plan suffered another setback when the US Senate passed a resolution to block it. But White House officials said President Bush would veto the resolution if it passed the House and reached his desk, according to a Reuters report.
Cebull's ruling drew protests from the top agricultural officials of both the United States and Canada.
US Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns described himself as "very disappointed." He said the plan to reopen the border, along with existing animal health and public health measures in both countries, provides "the utmost protection to both U.S. consumers and livestock."
Canadian Agriculture and Agri-Food Minister Andy Mitchell said he shared the "profound disappointment of the Canadian livestock industry" over the ruling. He continued, "Canada and the United States have the same BSE risk status, and have similar safeguards in place to protect human health, food safety and animal health.
"The interests of consumers and producers on both sides of the border would be served by reintegrating our ruminant and meat markets to the fullest extent possible based on science. The science indicates that the border should be reopened."
Johanns also objected to the Senate vote to block the resumption of cattle imports. He said the vote "undermines the U.S. efforts to promote science-based regulations, complicates U.S. negotiations to reopen foreign markets to U.S. beef and would perpetuate the economic disruption of the beef and cattle industry." He promised to try to stop the resolution in the House.
According to the Globe and Mail, Cebull wrote that resuming cattle imports from Canada would "likely be understood by consumers in the U.S. and abroad as increasing the risk of BSE agents entering the U.S. meat supply." He said the risks the move entails are "great," while "delay is prudent and largely harmless."
Cebull granted the injunction until R-CALF's suit can be weighed in a full trial, according to the newspaper. He gave the two sides 10 days to propose a schedule for a trial.
Canadian feed ban gets good grades
Cebull's ruling came just 5 days after the USDA announced that Canada's feed ban to prevent transmission of BSE was working well. In late January, after the discovery of Canada's two latest BSE cases, the USDA sent a technical team to Canada to assess how Canada's "ruminant-to-ruminant" feed ban was working.
Cattle contract BSE by eating protein from infected animals. To prevent this, both Canada and the United States in 1997 banned the use of most mammalian proteins in feed for cattle and other ruminants.
The USDA announced its findings on the Canadian feed ban on Feb 25. The agency said its inspectors did a thorough assessment and found that "Canada has a robust inspection program, that overall compliance with the feed ban is good and that the feed ban is reducing the risk of transmission of bovine spongiform encephalopathy in the Canadian cattle population."
Dr. Ron DeHaven, administrator of the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, commented, "This assessment affirms our science-based decision to begin lifting the ban on live ruminants and ruminant products from Canada that have virtually no risk to human or animal health."
This week, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) released its own review of Canada's feed ban. The agency concluded that the ban was appropriately designed and implemented and that compliance with it is high. "On average, 95% of feed mills and 93% of renderers inspected over the past three years were either fully compliant or reported only minor non-compliance issues, such as documentation requirements," the CFIA said in a news release.
During the review, on-site inspectors saw one significant violation of the ban, and corrective action was taken immediately, according to a summary of the CFIA report.
The report says Canada's feed and rendering industries are increasingly using separate, or "dedicated," production lines to handle permitted and banned materials, the report says. This reduces the risk that feed for ruminants will be contaminated with ruminant proteins.
Johanns statement on court ruling
Johanns statement on Senate vote
Statement by Canadian Agriculture Minister Andy Mitchell
Feb 25 USDA statement on its assessment of Canada's feed ban