- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 23, 2005

MONTREAL — As an investigation continues into a third case of mad cow disease, found in Alberta two weeks ago, Canada’s embattled cattle producers hope to avert another delay in the long-awaited opening of the U.S. border to Canadian live cattle.

“All my hope should have been gone long ago,” said Jason Kelly, an Alberta rancher who estimates that he has lost about $150,000 because of the 20-month-old ban on live Canadian cattle imposed by the United States after the initial discovery of a mad cow case. “But somehow I still hope.”

Officials with the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association were more optimistic.

Stan Eby, the CCA president, said he felt “reasonably confident” that despite the third case of mad cow disease in Canada, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) would reopen the border on March 7 to live Canadian cattle younger than 30 months and will allow the export of an expanded list of processed beef products.

But it’s not a sure bet.

Congress must review the plan, and several lawmakers have voiced opposition.

A U.S. Senate committee hearing on the issue is slated for early February.

Last week, the Montana-based Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund filed a lawsuit against the USDA in an attempt to keep the border shut.

Mr. Eby said, on the other hand, the American Meat Institute, which represents interests of the U.S. meatpacking industry, has filed a lawsuit against the USDA to force it to lift the ban on all live Canadian cattle, calling the ban “arbitrary and capricious.”

At least four U.S. meatpacking plants have closed because of the ban on live Canadian cattle, Mr. Eby said.

But critics in the United States question the effectiveness of measures taken by the Canadian government to prevent the bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), the brain-wasting disease known as mad cow, from entering Canadian cattle herds and by extension — given the closely integrated North American cattle industry — U.S. cattle herds.

The single case of BSE found in the United States in December 2003 was traced to Canada.

What worries critics in the latest case, a Charolais cow from a ranch in central Alberta, is that it was found in an animal born after a 1997 ban on feeding cattle protein made of rendered animal parts to other cattle. The practice is thought to spread the disease.

The rancher who raised the infected cow said he suspects a feed supplement he bought in the spring of 1998, and critics are asking why banned products were never recalled.

But Jack Daines, the owner of a cattle auction market in Innisfail, Alberta, where the latest case of BSE was discovered, dismissed the critics, saying cattle industries in Canada and the United States are virtually identical.

“We have the same regulations; we use the same breeds,” Mr. Daines said. “I’ve been in this business 50 years, but if you put a cow from Alberta and cow from Montana side by side, I can’t say which side of the border they eat grass.”

In fact, if Americans were to test their cattle as vigorously as Canadians do, they would find a few cases of BSE, too, Mr. Daines argued.

Canadian government and industry officials have made extra efforts to reassure American consumers that Canada has one of the safest beef supplies in the world.

The cow in question never entered the food chain, they said.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency said it has traced 15 more cattle from the original herd, for a total of 37, to be slaughtered and tested for the disease.

The agency also is reviewing farm records and investigating feed retailers and manufacturers.

In addition, representatives from the U.S. National Cattlemen’s Beef Association will be visiting Canada this week to tour slaughterhouses, feedlots and feed mills, and members of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration are set to begin an investigation in Canada today.

Canadian officials said more BSE cases were expected, when Canada ratcheted up testing for the disease after the initial discovery in an Alberta cow in May 2003. Under international guidelines, Canada can report up to 12 BSE cases before losing its minimal-risk status.

But Gib Drury, a spokesman for the Quebec Federation of Beef Producers and a cattle farmer in Western Quebec, said each new case adds uncertainty to an industry already reeling from the consequences of the 20-month-old beef ban.

“It’s been miserable, just absolutely miserable,” Mr. Drury said, taking a break from feeding his 500 heads of cattle in temperatures dipping below minus 11 degrees Fahrenheit. “Every time we sell an animal, we take a hammering.”

Mr. Drury said he has lost about $150,000 just in the breeding stock part of his operation.

“And that hurts a lot,” he said. “It puts me in dire straits.”

Mr. Kelly’s Alberta ranch is experiencing similar problems.

“Cow and calf and feedlot operators used to get anywhere from $1,000 [$811 U.S.] to $2,000 [$1,622 U.S.] per head,” Mr. Kelly said. “Now they get about $200 [$162 U.S.]. Our inventories grow; nobody wants to sell at these prices.”

Cindy McCreath, spokeswoman for the CCA, said the industry as a whole has lost more than $4 billion.

“It’s the biggest crisis to hit Canadian agriculture,” Mrs. McCreath said.

Prior to the beef ban, Canada exported up to 60 percent of its beef and cattle production. Eighty percent of that went to the United States, Mrs. McCreath said.

The financial impact of border closure was compounded by the fact that Canada lacked slaughter capacity to process all its beef, she said.

The industry has recognized this and is working to rebuild Canada’s slaughterhouse capacity as an insurance against future border closures, she added.

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