BSE Roundtable Airs Opinions on Border Reopening

All sides of the debate share their views on what needs to be done before Canada trade resumption. Willie Vogt

Published on: Jun 9, 2005

Leaders of the beef industry traveled to St. Paul, Minn., today to talk about bovine spongiform encephalopathy and explore the factors associated with reopening trade with Canada, and other world markets. Since the U.S. BSE find in December 2003, the U.S. lost about 64% of its beef exports, and so far has only recovered about a third of that business.

Titled, "The Safety of North American Beef and the Economic Effects of BSE on the U.S. Beef Industry," the event brought together officials, producers, packers and others to discuss the science of BSE, the safety of the North American cattle and beef markets and the economic impacts of the detection of BSE on the U.S. cattle and beef industry.

Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns talked to the media during a break in panel proceedings, including a chat with Japanese journalists about the potential of reopening that market.

The panel included a range of industry voices, including Bill Bullard, CEO of Rancher-Cattleman's Action Legal Fund United Stockgrowers of America, the group leading the charge to keep the Canadian border closed to live animal imports. Bullard's contention is that while U.S. beef is safe, there are concerns about how Canada - which has had four cases of BSE since 2003 (1 Canada-raised animal was found in Washington state) - is testing its cattle. "In a country where BSE is widespread, there is a need for a different level of testing, to document the decline of the disease in the animal population," he notes. "We are not requiring Canada to do that."

Carl Kuehne represented the American Meat Institute on the panel noting the need for a science-based decision making process. According to AMI, both the U.S. and Canada were proactive in striving to prevent BSE from spreading and mirror each other in prevention strategies and regulations.

Kuehne noted that U.S. packers have been hit hard by the lack of live cattle coming in from Canada to process. He heads up American Foods Group in Green Bay, Wis., and during his opening remarks pointed out that removing specified risk material from the food supply ends the risk of BSE to the consumer.

During the event AMI Senior Vice President of Public Affairs Janet Riley unveiled new black wrist bands that say OpenBeefBorders.com, the Institute’s new web site that was developed to communicate the urgency of restoring trade with Canada.

"We chose black because we are mourning our losses," Riley says. We’ve lost more than 6,100 workers due to layoffs and closed plants. We’ve also lost slaughter capacity. In 2005, we expect to slaughter four million fewer cattle than we slaughtered in 2002. Just this week, another beef packing plant closed in Gering, Nebraska and more than 200 people lost their jobs. The plant cited the inability to source Canadian cattle as a chief reason for the closure."

Minnesota Farmers Union Vice President, Dennis Sjodin, speaking on behalf of the National Farmers Union’s 250,000 family farmers and ranchers, voiced concerns regarding USDA’s rush to opening U.S. beef and cattle markets to countries with documented cases of BSE.

"NFU believes the BSE trade issue needs to be resolved as quickly as possible without compromising the integrity of the U.S. beef industry," says Sjodin. "However, that does not mean potentially risking the economic health and safety of our domestic cattle industry and consumer confidence."

NFU says it is a mistake to rush to change science-based policies that have served as the foundation of our decisions in the past--in order to open our borders to BSE-positive countries--until those changes are first accepted and acknowledged by our trading partners. NFU maintains that the following steps should also be taken before the border is re-opened for Canadian cattle and beef products:

  • Verification that Canada’s cattle herd and beef products are BSE-free and have achieved100% compliance with the ruminant feed ban;
  • U.S. mandatory country-of-origin labeling is fully implemented;
  • U.S beef export markets are wholly re-established;
  • A guaranteed economic safety net for American producers is established in case the importation of cattle and beef products from BSE-positive countries undermines domestic profitability
  • Rapid-test technology is provided to all U.S. slaughtering facilities;
  • A credible national animal identification system, fully funded by the federal government, which provides the necessary securities to both producers and consumers, is in place.

Those attending the event probably felt they might see a change in attitudes concerning the issues. Ag Secretary Johanns did say he hoped the event would open the dialogue on the issues. "But this matter is also in the courts," he adds. With the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ready to rule on the industry injunction on July 13, and the Montana court waiting to get back to work on the case, it will be some time before a decision is made.

During a press conference at the event, a Japanese journalist questioned Johanns about the Kansas packer Creekstone that was willing to test 100% of its output to gain business in Japan. USDA - under former secretary Ann Veneman - ruled against the idea. Johanns stuck by the decision. "Testing every animal isn't based on sound science," he remarks. "If you test all animals for this disease, then what other tests might you need in the market?"