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Border controversy mired in legacy of bad policymaking

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Feb 10, 2005
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Northeastern B.C.

Canadian border controversy mired in legacy of bad policymaking

by Dan Murphy on 3/4/05 for Meatingplace.com

It's tough to take sides in the ongoing dispute over whether Canadian cattle imports to the United States should resume anytime soon.

As has been widely reported, U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull in Montana granted a temporary injunction this week, halting for the foreseeable future the Department of Agriculture's plan to re-open the border to imports of live cattle under 30 months of age beginning Monday, March 7. The injunction was granted pending what plaintiffs R-CALF USA hope will be a hearing on the "scientific merits" of allowing Canadian cattle to enter the United States.

The American Meat Institute asserted, "Canadian beef is as safe and wholesome as beef produced in this country," and noted the potential economic damage to "hardworking American families" whose members work in packing plants hurt by an inability to source Canadian feeder and slaughter cattle.

AMI is awaiting a ruling from U.S. District Court Judge John Garrett Penn in a separate lawsuit seeking full restoration of trade in cattle and beef products with Canada.

R-CALF, meanwhile, contended that "sloppy science" compromises USDA's planned re-opening of cattle imports and argued that "irrevocable harm could result" to their membership if cattle trade resumes.

The economics of this dispute are understandable. Shutting off imports benefits northern tier producers in states such as Montana and North Dakota. Without Canadian cattle, they face less competition in the marketplace and enjoy higher average prices.

Meanwhile, those U.S. beef packing plants forced to pay higher prices for live cattle, or to curtail operations when supplies become tight, have endured a financial hit from the now 22-month border closure that is not insignificant.

But at the heart of the matter is the scientific controversy over the safety and wholesomeness of Canadian beef-and by extension, Canadian cattle. AMI argued that "there is no legal or scientific reason to justify the ban on importing Canadian beef" and called the continued closure of the border "arbitrary and capricious."

But the very requirements USDA developed for the planned importation of Canadian cattle, which included age verification and mandatory segregation of animals not in compliance with requirements, indicate that the safety of beef products from a country with confirmed cases of bovine spongiform encephalopathy cannot be confirmed with absolute certainty.

For example, under the proposed re-importation scenario, Canadian cattle would go through specific ports of entry where USDA inspectors would unseal the truck and later verify that the animals were segregated from domestic origin cattle at the packing plant. APHIS veterinarians would have the authority to offload animals for verification at the port of entry, if necessary. If "regulatory requirements" were not met, the cattle were to be confined to a separate pen at the packing plant until further notice.

At the same time, veterinarians were supposed to conduct "awareness meetings" at packing plants receiving Canadian cattle to "inform the establishment that it must reassess its HACCP system." The imported cattle would be considered a "new source of raw materials," prompting a review of the plant's slaughter process.

USDA officials described their strategy as "cautionary," meaning there is at least some concern with liability should further BSE cases surface in Canada, or, God forbid, the United States.

Basically, the entire dispute over beef safety and the suitability of exports of both U.S. and Canadian beef is a canyon-sized crater that USDA dug for itself and the U.S. beef industry it regulates, and it will not be easy to climb out if it.

In the days following the confirmation of Canada's first BSE case in May 2003, then-USDA Secretary Ann Veneman stated that, "The risk to human health and the possibility of transmission to animals in the United States is very low [but] USDA . . . will not accept any ruminants or ruminant products from Canada pending further investigation." Veneman characterized the action as one of "a series of preventive actions" that included banning the import of ruminants and most ruminant products from countries "that have or are considered to be at risk for having BSE."

USDA's overreaction was part of a larger rush to judgment that resulted in an unnecessary border closure, a ridiculously extensive meat recall, an unjustified ban on processing downer animals and wholesale changes to the regulations regarding specified risk materials and bovine feeding regulations.

Predictably, when a U.S. case of BSE was confirmed seven months later, nearly all of our beef trading partners responded in kind with import bans that are still crippling U.S. beef exports.

But it is hard to fully fault USDA for the steps it took in 2003. After all, while there is "sound science" to guide prudent policy dealing with the extremely limited risk to human health from BSE, there isn't as yet scientific certainty on the nature of the disease and the possibility-however remote-of transmission of the infective prions to humans.

How could there be? BSE represents a remarkably different disease, one not predicated on the existence of a living bacteria or virus that can eventually be neutralized, if not destroyed. Even the scientific understanding we do have of BSE's etiology and cross-species sensitivities is relatively recent.

Moreover, the firewalls in place - the feed ban, SRM removal and the restrictions on older cattle, which depend on a less-than-perfect system of determining their age-are effective only if full compliance is assured. Recent audits of both U.S. and Canadian feed mills show high percentages of compliance with the ban on feeding ruminant proteins to cattle-but not 100 percent perfect.

That leaves loopholes in the regulatory structure big enough to drive a cattle truck through-or not, as R-CALF and its allies hope.

The bottom line is that while it's regrettable certain beef industry segments are taking advantage of the near-impossible dilemma in which USDA finds itself, it should come as no surprise that the very same "sound science" initially used to justify closing the border to Canadian beef and cattle is now being deployed to prevent its re-opening.

The re-importation of Canadian beef, and the eventual restoration of U.S. beef exports overseas, is as much a policy decision as it is a controversy that can be resolved by further study.

Eventually, researchers will likely provide a definitive characterization of the risks to human health from BSE. For now, however, about the only thing that's indisputable is that USDA's policymaking has been far more flawed than the "sound science" on which it was allegedly based.

EXTRA POINT: Many campaigns conducted by anti-industry activists are so philosophical in nature, revolving around subjective questions of animal welfare, as to appeal only to already-converted true believers.

The recent publicity surrounding the "Animal Care Certified" labeling controversy in the egg industry is different, however. For one, such groups as Compassion Over Killing have been able to mobilize the imagery of battery cages to evoke consumer concern. They've also been able to identify environmental impacts, such as the recent fines for manure mismanagement imposed on Buckeye Egg Farm in Ohio, to gain traction for their mission of imposing a ban on confinement of laying hens.

As COK's former director, Paul Shapiro, phrased it in an editorial picked up by a Missouri newspaper in a county where a large-scale egg production facility was proposed, "Anyone concerned about animal welfare, the environment, or local quality of life should oppose egg factory farms. Intensively confining millions of birds in one facility is just too great a cost to bear for everyone involved, both animal and human."

Shapiro noted that citizens in Kansas and Oklahoma counties where such facilities were planned rejected those operations, allegedly due to the "not-in-my-backyard" syndrome.

What I wonder is this: Does anyone want an "old-fashioned" egg production facility in their backyard? You know, the ones where a bunch of roosters start crowing at dawn every day? Where the farmer simply shovels the manure into a big pile outside the chicken coop and throws some hay on it, figuring the rain will eventually rinse it away. Where dead birds are tossed into a hand-dug pit. Where "spent hens" go not to a processing plant making chicken soup but are sold off to even smaller-scale, backyard "farmers" who keep the hens alive for another couple years producing eggs for sale at unlicensed markets.

You could argue that these backyard "operations" might be better for the chickens, but you sure can't make a case that such production is better for the environment, for food safety or for the sleeping habits of any residents who happen to live nearby.

If people don't want large-scale "egg factories" in their backyards, where would we locate the literally thousands of "natural" egg-producing facilities, if those large operations were to be phased out?

Don't bother posing that question to the likes of Shapiro, as I've done, because the only response you'll get is a repetition of the last two words in the previous sentence. The real goal of all this posturing over "quality of life" for laying hens is summed up in the phrase "phased out."

Which for egg production will happen right around the time we "phase out" our freeway system, seeing as how it's such a source of damage to the environment and local quality of life, as COK loves to label it.

There are proven ways to mitigate the impact of both large-scale animal food production and our Interstate transportation system - especially if money's no object.

But in either case, the wholesale removal of either system would necessitate an adjustment to our customary lifestyle that would be universally unacceptable. That's a reality the folks fighting the construction of future animal foods operations ought to carefully consider.

Take care.
Eventually, researchers will likely provide a definitive characterization of the risks to human health from BSE. For now, however, about the only thing that's indisputable is that USDA's policymaking has been far more flawed than the "sound science" on which it was allegedly based.

While I admit hindsight is 20-20. There were flaws in policy making. One of the answers would have been to step up testing for ALL 4-D's, a higher testing percentage for OTM's, and to have not closed the border at all to feeders. FWIW

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