The March 7 effective date for reopening the Canadian border for cattle trade still holds, though newly confirmed U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns said Feb. 9 that imports of live cattle or meat from animals 30 months and over will not be allowed yet.
The holdup follows on the heels of criticism from several U.S. senators, led by Democrat Tom Harkin of Iowa, who said the U.S. Department of Agriculture's final rule on minimal risk for bovine spongiform encephalopathy, commonly called mad cow disease, has "serious shortcomings." The senators had said the March 7 date set for opening the border is too soon.
Johanns met with Andrew Mitchell, minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, before making the announcement. "Our ongoing investigations into the recent finds of BSE in Canada in animals over 30 months are not complete. Therefore I feel it is prudent to delay the effective date for allowing imports of meat from animals 30 months and over," Johanns said.
While beef products from cattle under 30 months are currently permitted to cross the border, live cattle under 30 months will only be permitted after March 7, and only for slaughter, not for breeding.
After a third case of BSE was discovered in Canada in January, a USDA technical team was sent to Canada to investigate the efficiency of the country's ruminant-to-ruminant feed ban, because the third BSE case involved a cow born after the ban had been put in place. The ban prohibits using feed with brain or spinal cord matter from other ruminants, since those are considered "specified risk materials," or at high risk for transmitting BSE.
To complicate matters, a group of Swiss researchers announced in January that they discovered prions—the proteins that cause Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, the human form of mad cow disease—in organs other than the central nervous system. However, USDA spokesman Ed Loyd said the discovery probably wouldn't impact trade decisions.
"We have concerns about the methodology," said Loyd. "It was done on lab mice [not cattle]." Loyd said all other science indicates that, in cattle, the prion is harbored solely in the central nervous system.
The delay in allowing meat from animals over 30 months old might benefit U.S. meat processors, who had feared losing jobs to Canada as the older meat from Canada would have been legally imported, while importation of cows of the same age would have been prohibited.
Harkin welcomed the delay, but said it does not answer all his concerns. "This is a significant step forward, but a number of important questions still remain," he said. "I am still waiting for an explanation as to why USDA has departed from key international scientific standards, namely the duration and effectiveness of Canada's ruminant feed ban, surveillance system and mandatory reporting system."
Two weeks ago, Harkin and three other senators said in a letter to Johanns, "The USDA approach seems to have been to focus almost exclusively on restarting trade with Canada rather than developing a comprehensive approach to address BSE risk globally and reopen overseas markets currently closed to the United States."
The senators wrote, "Currently, the United States seems to be headed towards at least two different sets of minimum risk standards—one for imports into the United States from Canada, and one for exports of products from the United States to Japan."
Though the dual standard might allow opening the Canadian border soon, the senators expressed concern that it could complicate future international trade with Japan and Korea. According to Johanns, those two countries account for almost 75 percent of America's currently closed beef export markets.
However, despite criticism from a Japanese consumers' union, a Japanese government panel recommended allowing the importation of U.S. grade A40 beef, which comes from cattle 12 to 17 months old. Japan confirmed its first case of the human form of mad cow disease in early February.