A Western ranchers' group has threatened legal action against the U.S. government to stop a plan announced in January to import more Canadian beef to the United States. The group claims the proposal would increase consumers' risk of infection with mad cow disease.
"We will continue to encourage Congress to intervene in this matter to avoid having to go back to the courts," said Bill Bullard, a spokesman for R-CALF, the 18,000-member rancher group.
Last year, Canada discovered five cases of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, a disease that can cause the brain-wasting variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans who eat infected meat.
While Canadian officials have banned feeding cattle any animal byproducts since 1997, one of the infected cows discovered last year was born in 2002, Bullard said. "What that would mean is the BSE agent has continued to circulate within the Canadian feed system years after the feed ban was put in place, meaning that the feed ban was not effective in halting the continued spread of the disease," Bullard said.
The United States currently allows Canadian imports of animals younger than 30 months of age because older animals are at higher risk of having the disease. The new proposal would permit importing cattle of any age. U.S. Department of Agriculture officials have done a risk assessment "confirming that additional animals and products can safely be traded," Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said in a statement.
"This proposal would continue to protect against BSE in the United States while taking the next step forward in our efforts to implement science-based trade relations with countries that have appropriate safeguards in place to prevent BSE," Johanns said.
Canadian beef imports were banned from the United States after Canada found its first case of mad cow disease in May 2003. When trading resumed later that year, an imported Canadian cow in Washington became the first U.S. case of mad cow disease.
Fears of mad cow disease have not only spurred lawsuits but also driven different purchasing behavior. Coleman Natural Foods "saw a modest sales gain" in 2003 following the first reported BSE case, said Robyn Nick, a spokeswoman for the company in Golden, Colo. There were also reports that customers bought other meats instead of beef immediately after the contamination was reported, she said.
Coleman's customers want to know its animals are fed a 100 percent vegetarian diet, said Mel Coleman Jr., chairman, because it is the protein in animal byproducts in feed that could cause BSE. He champions a "naturally raised" label, which includes the company's strict protocols of no antibiotics, growth hormones or animal proteins in a cow's diet.
"That's what the customer is looking for, is how the animal is treated and what it eats," Coleman said. "Naturally raised will have a much bigger impact on the industry and meeting consumer expectations."
Customers these days want to know about anything in food that could affect their health, not just BSE, said Roy Moore, owner of Maverick Ranch in Denver, Colo. "What is on consumers' minds is health in general," Moore said. "Mad cow is one of the issues, but it's not at the forefront like it was at one time."
Most imported beef is used in industrial foodservice settings, where customers don't really know what they're eating, said Joe Schuele, a spokesman for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, based in Centennial, Colo.
The national trade group worries that country-of-origin labeling, one way to help consumers know where their meat comes from, will cost more money, which will be "pushed down to the producer."
But Joe Mendelson, a spokesman for the Washington, D.C.?based Center for Food Safety, labeled the USDA's plan "reprehensible," calling for the agency to check every single Canadian beef processor for BSE before allowing imports.
"My understanding is that the number of cows [USDA is] testing is down; they have reduced the testing on animals for mad cow disease," Mendelson said.
The public can comment on the USDA plan until March 12. Officials say they will take comments into account before proceeding.
Beth Potter is a Denver-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 2/p. 11