Senate Votes in Favor of Canadian Cattle Ban
By J.R. Pegg
WASHINGTON, DC, March 4, 2005 (ENS) - The U.S. Senate voted Thursday to block the Bush administration from lifting a ban on Canadian cattle put in place 21 months ago due to concerns about mad cow disease.
The move is the second rebuke of the Bush plan in as many days. On Wednesday a federal judge granted a temporary injunction requested by cattle interests keen to keep the ban in effect.
"It is just the better part of wisdom is for us not to open the border prematurely," said North Dakota Democrat Kent Conrad, a primary sponsor of the resolution. "The consequences are just too great for the American people, and for the American economy."
The resolution passed the Senate by a vote of 52 to 46, with 13 Republicans crossing party lines to join the majority of Democrats in favor of the measure.
The measure, which will now go to the House of Representatives for consideration, appears merely a symbolic vote - the White House has pledged to veto the resolution.
But the Senate vote reflects deep divisions between lawmakers, the administration and the beef industry on how the nation should deal with concerns about mad cow disease.
Last December, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) proposed a rule to redefine Canada as a "minimal risk region" for mad cow disease and reopen the U.S. market to imports of Canadian cattle less than 30 months of age.
Younger cattle are less likely to suffer from the mad cow disease, officially known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE).
The disease spreads from one animal to another by consumption of feed that has been contaminated by protein from an infected animal - humans can come down with a parallel fatal brain wasting disease by consuming beef from BSE-infected cattle.
Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said the administration's plan to lift of the ban is based on sound science approved by the World Health Organization and adequately protects public health.
"The USDA remains confident that the requirements of the minimal-risk rule, in combination with the animal and public health measures already in place in the United States and Canada, provide the utmost protection to both U.S. consumers and livestock," Johanns said.
Last month Johanns revoked part of the rule that would also have opened the U.S. market to shipments of beef from Canadian cattle older than 30 months - critics said the provision was inconsistent with public health concerns about the disease and potentially harmful to the U.S. meatpacking industry.
Johanns said the administration has not yet decided if it will appeal the court ruling.
The rule lifting the ban was slated to go into effect March 7, but will be in limbo until the case is considered by the federal judge in Montana.
Both actions "prove that USDA's Final Rule needs to be revisited while the border remains closed," said Leo McDonnell, president and founder of R-CALF USA, the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America, which filed suit to block the rule.
The cattlemen, buoyed by record high domestic beef prices, are wary their Canadian rivals will flood the U.S. market if the ban is lifted and are uncertain the move will revive Asian exports.
Meatpackers, by contrast, claim the policy has cost them some $1.7 billion and the American Meat Institute (AMI) is pursuing its own legal action to force the USDA to reopen the border to Canadian cattle.
Several meatpacking companies have cut operations at U.S. processing plants in recent months because of low demand and tight cattle supplies.
"We are very disappointed by today's Senate vote … Congressional actions like these serve not only to complicate justified efforts to import Canadian beef and cattle, but also hurt our own efforts to restore our export markets," said Mike Brown, spokesman for AMI.
The White House, too, believes renewed trade with Canada will help both the beef and meatpacking industries in the long term because it will help entice Asian nations - in particular Japan and South Korea - to end their bans on U.S. beef.
Those nations shut their borders to U.S. beef in late December 2003, after a cow in Washington state was found to be infected with mad cow disease.
Japan accounted for some $1.7 billion in U.S. beef exports in 2003, but has shown little signs of reversing its ban.
Supporters of the ban argue the rule would do little to assure Japan and other nations that the closely integrated U.S. and Canadian beef industries have their houses in order.
"When Canada sneezed and we got the cold, our trading partners backed away," said Idaho Republican Larry Craig. "I cannot in good conscience open a border that brings greater numbers to the Lower 48 when the science remains questionable and we have not resumed the Pacific Rim markets that are extremely valuable to the livestock industry."
Craig and others noted that since the administration decided to lift the ban, two more cases of mad cow disease have been discovered in Canadian cattle.
Although last month USDA inspectors said Canada is effectively implementing a ban on giving cattle feed that contains the nervous system tissues from ruminant animals that is most likely to carry the agent that causes mad cow disease, critics cite findings that the practice is far from rigorous.
"The evidence is just overwhelming that Canada is not enforcing its own regulations," Conrad said. "Their own government testing shows it."
Canadian regulators have discovered problems with 10 feed mills, and more than 60 percent of recently tested samples of vegetarian animal feed manufactured in Canada contained "undeclared animal materials."
But there are also concerns about U.S. oversight.
In January a USDA whistleblower detailed problems with the removal of specified risk materials - the nervous system tissue believed mostly likely to carry infected material - from older cattle.