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Ag secretary defends opening U.S. to Canadian beef
By Margaret Talev
McClatchy Newspapers


March 02, 2005

Washington - The nation's agriculture secretary on Tuesday defended the Bush administration's plans to lift major trade restrictions on Canadian beef and cattle starting next week, two months after two new cases of mad cow disease were confirmed there, saying the move poses no health risks, should stem U.S job losses to the Canadian meatpacking industry and is key to re-establishing American beef exports to Asia.

Mike Johanns told the House Committee on Agriculture that he is confident, after a U.S. assessment of Canada's feed inspection programs released last month, that Canada has "the necessary safeguards in place to protect U.S. consumers" starting March 7, when the border reopens to bone-in beef and live cattle 30 months and younger. The Bush administration intends to resume imports of older cattle and beef at a later date.

Johanns also said the United States must reopen trade with Canada if it is to convince Japan and other once-lucrative markets to resume imports of American beef, which were cut off after an isolated case of the disease was identified in Washington state in December 2003, in a cow that came from Canada.

"In every discussion I've had with Japan, I keep going back to the point that their decision needs to be based on science," Johanns said. "Otherwise, quite honestly, it's the politics of the day that would govern the decision making. In working with Canada, if we set a different standard and different example than what we are insisting upon with the Japanese, we will pay a very, very heavy price for that."

The United States is losing an estimated $3.1 billion a year in unrealized exports, mostly to Japan and South Korea, experts said Tuesday. But while Mexico has indicated it will allow more U.S. beef imports once the United States relaxes restrictions on Canada, Pacific Rim nations have not made the same guarantees. And some ranchers and members of Congress have argued that letting Canadian cattle across the border to mix in feed lots with U.S. cattle might actually hurt the prospects for expanding overseas markets if those countries have a poor perception about Canadian beef.

Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., who traveled to South Korea last month to meet with trade officials there, told Johanns that consumers there were hypersensitive to the issue.

"That single incident in the state of Washington has caused beef consumption in Korea to decline significantly," he said. "I come back from Korea very concerned that we're proposing to rush forward, bring these Canadian cattle down, and it's going to make it more difficult for us in the end to win back that market."

Representatives for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association and the packing and processed foods industry testified in support of reopening Canadian trade, and say critics are protectionists hiding behind hyped-up health concerns. But many individual ranchers and state cattle organizations oppose the move, saying it comes too soon and will hurt them financially.

"We do not see it as an animal health or food safety issue, we see this being an economic issue for California's cattle producers," said Ben Higgins of the California Cattlemen's Association.

Johanns predicted domestic ranchers would face only a slight reduction in prices as a result of the increase in inventory.

Bovine spongiform encephalopathy, the brain wasting disease commonly known as "mad cow," has been found in a statistically tiny number of the millions of cattle slaughtered. It's such a hot-button concern because scientists have linked it to a fatal form of Creutzfeld-Jacob disease in humans. There are no known human cases linked to U.S. or Canadian cows. At least 157 people worldwide are believed to have contracted the disease and most have died, according to a recent report by consumer group Public Citizen.

The United States and Canada both have moved to safeguard their beef supplies, largely by banning feed that contains certain livestock parts. The disease is not believed to be easily spread from one live animal to the next, but it is concentrated in certain tissues including in the skull, brain, eyes and small intestine. While the feed ban was put in place eight years ago, in one of Canada's most recent cases, the diseased cow was born months after the ban.


Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.

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