(ENS) WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Agriculture Department's announcement last week that the United States will lift its mad cow ban on Canadian beef imposed in May 2003 has stirred up a storm of controversy in the U.S. livestock community. Some organizations are outraged that Canadian beef will once again be imported, especially since on Sunday, Canadian food safety officials announced that another mad cow had been identified in Alberta.
Other organizations are just as concerned that the ban still exists and will remain in place until March 7 when the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will begin a new system of defining minimal risk zones for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) or mad cow disease. Canada is the first minimal risk zone identified under the new rule.
But the day after USDA Secretary Ann Veneman announced the minimal risk zone rule, the American Meat Institute (AMI) filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court saying there is no legal or scientific justification for continuing to ban Canadian cattle 30 months of age and older.
The brains, skulls, spinal cords and lower intestines of cattle older than 30 months are the most likely to transmit the misfolded proteins called prions that cause mad cow disease. These materials, called specified risk materials, were banned from the human food supply by USDA officials last January.
Since September 2003, the United States has been allowing imports of Canadian boneless beef from animals younger than 30 months under a permit process.
The American Meat Institute argues in its lawsuit that the USDA ban on older Canadian cattle is "scientifically insupportable and is therefore arbitrary and capricious and contrary to law, in violation of the Administration Procedure Act." The Institute made clear that it is not challenging the new minimal risk rule, but is seeking an injunction against enforcement of the original May 2003 ban.
"Calling Canadian beef unsafe is like calling your twin sister ugly," said Mark Dopp, the Institute's senior vice president for regulatory affairs and general counsel. "The U.S. and Canada both have implemented state-of-the-art, meat inspection and animal disease prevention systems. As we look across the borders, we see near mirror images of one another."
The minimal risk rule is based on safeguards to keep prions out of the food supply, including removal of specified risk materials from all animals entering the human food supply, and a ban on allowing proteins derived from ruminant animals in cattle feed. Both Canada and the United States supposedly have these safeguards in place.
But in fact, specified risk materials from cattle older than 30 months are getting into the human food supply, according to the union that represents federal inspectors in U.S. meat plants.
The National Joint Council of Food Inspection Locals warned the USDA in a letter dated December 8, 2004 that inspectors had found heads and carcasses of cows on slaughter and processing lines that were not always correctly marked as being older than 30 months. Brain tissue is a specified risk material known to carry prions.
"We couldn't determine that every part out of there was from a cow under 30 months," Stan Painter, the union's chairman, told MSNBC.com late last month.
The removal of specified risk materials is internationally recognized as the most effective means to protect public health from mad cow disease, and USDA officials said as late as December 29 that they are "confident" the system is working as it should.
Veneman said, "After conducting an extensive review, we are confident that imports of certain commodities from regions of minimal risk can occur with virtually no risk to human or animal health. Our approach is consistent with guidelines established by the World Organization for Animal Health, or OIE, and relies on appropriate, science based risk mitigation measures."
"The animal and public health measures that Canada has in place to prevent BSE, combined with existing U.S. domestic safeguards and additional safeguards provided in the final rule provide the utmost protections to U.S. consumers and livestock," the agency said December 29, announcing the new minimal risk rule.
The 106 year old National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA), the largest organization representing America's cattle industry, has weighed in on the side of lifting the ban, calling the new rule "an important step toward normalizing global trade, which increases profitability for America's cattle producers."
But the Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC), which represents grassroots organizations from seven states, said Monday that "the National Cattlemen's Beef Association's endorsement of reopening the border is appalling."
Mabel Dobbs, an Idaho rancher who heads the WORC Livestock Committee, said Congress should block the Agriculture Department's plan to reopen the border on March 7. "USDA and the NCBA do not have the best interests of United States consumers and cattle producers at heart, Congress must step in," she said.
Reopening the border "puts U.S. consumers at risk, threatens to delay resumption of U.S. beef exports to Asia, and would devastate U.S. cattle markets," Dobbs said.
Other cattlemen also oppose lifting of the ban on Canadian beef from cattle older than 30 months. R-CALF USA (Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America) represents thousands of U.S. cattle producers on trade and marketing issues.
R-CALF's Bill Bullard said his organization seeks a reversal of the USDA's new minimal risk rule. The rule does not even require Canada to meet the more stringent BSE mitigation measures outlined by the World Animal Health Organization for BSE moderate-risk countries, said Bullard, and "this is one of the main reasons the agency's final rule must be overturned."
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