The cattle industry is split over country-of-origin labeling. Now another major division is being drawn between different industry players on whether Canadian live imports should resume.
One group, R-CALF United Stockgrowers of America (R-CALF USA), says it is prepared to defend American consumers and cattle herds in court if the USDA follows through with plans to relax existing health and safety restrictions on imports of beef and cattle from countries affected by bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE).
"We are disappointed that USDA may abandon the science-based animal health regulations that serve as the primary firewall protecting the United States from BSE. We're prepared to go to court to protect the safety of American consumers and our industry," says Leo McDonnell, President of R-CALF USA. "We are tired of USDA bowing to pressure from the Canadian government and multinational beef processors when the health of U.S. consumers and the cattle industry are at stake."
In a statement from R-CALF USA, the group recalls that in May 2003, a BSE-infected cow was discovered in Alberta, Canada and USDA added Canada to the list of 23 countries known to be affected with BSE. These countries are prohibited from shipping beef and cattle into the United States.
USDA decided to relax its ban and to allow imports of Canadian beef into the United States less than three months after the discovery, despite objections from R-CALF USA and other groups concerned about the risk posed to consumers.
The group says "again under pressure from the Canadian government and multinational corporations" on November 4, 2003, USDA proposed changes to weaken regulation to crease a BSE minimal-risk standard for countries. However, just 13 days before the end of the public comment period on USDA's proposed APHIS regulations, on December 23, 2003, a second Canadian cow with BSE was discovered, this time in Moses Lake, Washington. This second cow was born and raised in Alberta, Canada, but was exported to a dairy in Mabton, Washington in September 2001.
R-CALF USA has requested the USDA to withdraw the proposed rule and suspend the ongoing shipments of select Canadian beef and allow a thorough investigation of the second BSE case. But R-CALF's statement goes on to say that the USDA "forged ahead" with its proposal to establish Canada as a minimal-risk region.
"USDA's actions send a strong signal that the health and safety of American consumers and the U.S. cattle herd are not the agency's chief concern," says McDonnell. "Independent cattle producers realized that no one was going to protect the welfare of our cattle herds unless we stepped up and did it ourselves."
R-CALF USA has retained lawyers and experts to challenge the rule in court including animal health experts, economists, and disease risk assessment experts to provide scientific opinions regarding the probable economic and health risks associated with a weakening of the United State's principle disease prevention safeguard.
McDonnell says the R-CALF USA comments submitted on April 7, 2004 reflect the expert input from these attorneys and scientists and that R-CALF USA is now preparing to address USDA's final decision in this matter, which may lead to a significant court battle. "However, it is our sincere hope that USDA will now recognize the unacceptable risk this proposed rule creates and will decide, on its own, to forego efforts to subject the U.S. cattle industry to those risks," he says.
A group of northern state senators are also in support of delaying the border reopening. Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.); Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.); Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.); Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.); Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.); and Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) expressed the need to harmonize safety standards to protect against BSE before reopening the border.
"While USDA appears determined to significantly increase its BSE testing, we are concerned that you are not requiring Canada to meet the same high standards," the senators said in the letter. "The United States is one of the largest beef-producing nations in the world, producing the best beef under the very best of conditions," the letter adds.