SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — A federal appeals court yesterday overturned the ban on imports of Canadian cattle, throwing out a lower court’s ruling that renewing the imports could spread mad cow disease in the United States.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture was not available to comment on when it would allow imports of Canadian cattle to resume. The imports were banned in May 2003 after a cow in Alberta was found to have mad cow disease.
The unanimous decision by a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturns a Montana judge who blocked the USDA from reopening the border in March, saying it “subjects the entire U.S. beef industry to potentially catastrophic damages” and “presents a genuine risk of death for U.S. consumers.”
The justices said they would issue another ruling soon explaining their rationale.
The decision came a day after the Justice Department urged the appeals court in Seattle to reopen the border to imports. Justice Department attorney Mark Stern said lifting the ban is based on “good science” and would not result in the “infestation in American livestock.”
During the hearing, the three judges suggested that U.S. District Judge Richard F. Cebull perhaps should have given deference to the USDA’s decision.
Judge A. Wallace Tashima said the law “does invest the secretary of agriculture with a certain amount of discretion.”
Judge Connie Callahan agreed, saying the USDA is “entitled to some deference. It’s their whole job to keep up with the science to make those decisions.”
American Meat Institute President J. Patrick Boyle said the industry will be able to resume cattle shipments quickly. “A lot of the preliminary work is already done. I think you’ll see the industry move quickly,” he said.
U.S. cattlemen are getting more for their cows without the competition of Canadian beef, but profits have declined at packers and feedlots, which are paying higher prices for cattle to process. They say Canadian cattle are safe, and that the ranchers are more interested in monopolizing supplies than protecting the meat-eating public.
Mr. Boyle said the ruling is also “a win for American consumers who were paying $1.85 a pound for ground beef before the border closed and are paying about $2.55 today.”
Mr. Boyle blamed the ban for the loss of more than 8,000 jobs in the U.S. meatpacking industry.
The Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, which represents about 90,000 beef producers, estimates they have lost more than $5.6 billion since the ban was established.
“This is a tremendous victory for the Northwest beef industry,” said Cody Easterday, who runs an 18,000-head feedlot in Pasco, Wash. “It’s basically going to protect our future for many families that depend on the beef industry for their livelihood.”
Mad cow disease is the common name for bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE. People who eat meat tainted with BSE can contract a degenerative, fatal brain disorder called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. More than 150 people died from it following a 1986 outbreak in Britain.