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Opening border to Canadian cattle premature

By John Stencel

While Rocky Mountain Farmers Union feels complete empathy toward Canadian cattle producers who saw an unexpected and severe drop in domestic cattle prices following closure of the U.S. border to Canadian cattle, resumption of trade as usual is premature. There are measures that should have been taken but were not—prior to opening the border.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) gave the go-ahead in mid-July for Canadian cattle to enter the United States. The border had been closed since May 2003 when a Canadian cow tested positive for Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), more commonly known as mad cow disease. Since then, three more cows confirmed positive for BSE have been traced back to Canada.

Less than a month after re-opening the border, beef banned under the new rules was shipped to wholesalers in a half-dozen states and is now being recalled by a Wisconsin beef plant. Two weeks after the fact, Canadian auditors discovered that one cow shipped south was actually 31 months old, rather than 30 or under as specified by the new rules. The processor is calling for a voluntary recall of the beef, which was shipped to six different states in the east and Midwest. The auditors also found that eight of the cows in that same shipment of cattle were pregnant, another infraction under the new rules. Allowing Canadian cattle back into the United States is premature because the mandatory, nationwide country-of-origin labeling program included in the 2002 farm bill has yet to be implemented. The recalls and slip-ups undermine the confidence of U.S. consumers because there is no way for them to know from where their beef originates.

Under current industry practices, it is common for a single “batch” of ground beef to have meat from cattle originating from a dozen different countries. This is the reason the processing industry so vehemently opposes mandatory country-of-origin labeling. It rightly believes that consumers will be put off by a label indicating that a single chub of hamburger has meat from many different origins.

According to a March 2004 study with consumers in Seattle conducted by Washington State University’s College of Agriculture, 79 percent favor a national animal identification system even if it means an increase in beef prices. This survey confirms what many other surveys have shown: consumers want to know more about how and where their food is produced. USDA has commenced its work to establish a national identification system for animals nationwide, but the border was opened without implementation of this system.

Another reason opening the U.S. border to Canadian cattle is premature is because the United States has not regained the export markets lost when BSE-detected cattle originating in Canada were found here. Now that the border is open to Canadian cattle, it is even less likely the United States will be able to re-open these markets. This increase in beef should mean lower prices in the supermarket. However, due to domination of the market by just a handful of multinational beef processors, the more likely scenario is that producer prices will fall, but retail prices will remain fairly steady.

Unfortunately, USDA did not think it important to have the proper protocols in place to better trace products and more easily reassure the public of the safety of the U.S. beef supply prior to opening the border to Canadian cattle. Until this is achieved the only recommendation I can provide consumers wishing to purchase U.S. product is that they sidle up to a local beef producer and make their purchases directly from the farm or ranch.