Political struggles have been delaying the movement of Canadian cattle across the border. Now, several months after an international ban on Canadian beef was imposed—following discovery of a single case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy—the American and Japanese governments are ready to permit some renewed trade.
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ann M. Veneman announced in August that the United States would begin accepting applications for import permits for low-risk meat products from Canada. In addition, Japan said it would accept U.S. exports of beef under a voluntary verification program.
The U.S. government, however, has been reluctant to jeopardize its relationship with Japan, the largest importer of American beef. Beef consumption in Japan reportedly declined by as much as 60 percent following a mad cow disease outbreak there in 2001, and the country now implements stringent meat-safety controls.
"Japan has requested that the United States certify that exports from the United States to Japan don't contain any Canadian beef," said Julie Quick, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
In response, Canada took several steps to assure the United States—the largest importer of Canadian beef—that its food supply is safe.
In July, the Canadian ministers of agriculture and health announced new food-supply safeguards stating that brains and spinal cords would be removed from carcasses during the slaughter of cattle more than 30 months old. BSE does not affect younger cattle, but brain and spinal cord parts of older cattle that are ground into feed have been implicated in the transmission of mad cow disease.
During a press teleconference following Canada's July 18 announcement, a senior USDA official acknowledged the political factors involved in reopening the border. "One of the other things we need to do is look at how the Canadian mitigation measures that are being put in place will be viewed by our trading partners," said David Hegwood. "Since other countries have different standards in place we need to evaluate how other countries are going to evaluate us if we [begin] to open the border."
Veneman said the USDA had conducted a thorough scientific analysis, and "determined that the risk to public health is extremely low." The USDA will begin accepting applications for import permits for several products, including boneless meat from cattle under 30 months of age. "We will continue to prohibit entry into the United States of certain other Canadian products, notably live cattle, until a rulemaking process is completed," Veneman said during a press teleconference Aug. 8.
The products now permitted represent approximately 40 percent of the beef products normally imported from Canada, said J.B. Penn, Undersecretary for Farm and Agricultural Services.
The fee-based Beef Export Verification Program will enable suppliers to certify that their exports contain meat from U.S. cattle only. Japan will accept beef only from companies participating in the program. Veneman said the initiative should be operational by the end of August.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 9/p. 21