- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 3, 2005

The Bush administration is reviewing a rule to reopen the U.S. border to Canadian cattle because of rising concerns that it will hurt American meatpackers.

Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns yesterday at a Senate hearing said the border opening still is targeted for March 7, but acknowledged concerns of lawmakers and the meatpacking industry.

“The actions that the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the federal government are taking in regard to BSE are potentially precedent-setting and could affect international trade patterns for years to come, with important economic implications for our cattle producers and the entire beef industry,” Mr. Johanns said.

Mad cow disease, officially known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, is a fatal disorder that attacks the central nervous system of cattle. A form of it has infected humans who eat diseased tissue.

The U.S. border has been closed to live Canadian cattle since May 2003, when Canadian authorities discovered a case of the disease.

The USDA on Dec. 29 said it was satisfied that Canada offered minimal risk for spreading the disease and would reopen the border, an announcement almost immediately followed by another mad cow discovery in Canada. A third Canadian case was found last month.

Mr. Johanns, newly appointed to President Bush’s Cabinet, left open the possibility of adjusting the border-opening policy, but restated the plan to resume trade next month.

“March 7 is … the date I’m working with,” he said.

He acknowledged, though, that the regulations opening the border might have unintended economic consequences for the industry.

The new USDA rule would restrict cattle imports to animals younger than 30 months, but allow in cuts of meat from animals of any age.

A report by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association released this week said the import of “over-30” beef would negatively impact the U.S. price for cows. And some senators yesterday said the rule will shift the meatpacking industry to Canada from the United States.

Mr. Johanns acknowledged the concern, though he did not outline any possible changes to the rule.

“I have plenty of time between now and March 7,” he said.

The U.S.-Canada cattle and beef markets had been integrated closely before March 2003, with Canada sending more than 1 million head of cattle per year to the United States, mostly for slaughter.

Since the border closed, some American plants have scaled back, while Canadian plants have expanded.

Tyson Foods Inc., for example, last month suspended operations at beef plants in Iowa, Nebraska and Idaho, citing the U.S.-Canada border closing and a lack of cattle available for slaughter. Yesterday the Springdale, Ark., company said the 2,100 workers will remain idle at least through Feb. 12.

Tyson last year announced a $17 million investment in a Canadian plant to increase slaughter capacity and “address the backlog of cattle in Alberta and the prairies, which continue to accrue because of the ongoing Canada-U.S. border closure,” the company said.


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