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Feds stepping up support for Canadian beef industry

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Feb 10, 2005
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nw manitoba
Feds stepping up support for Canadian beef industry
this document web posted: Wednesday March 30, 2005 20050331p101

By Barry Wilson
Ottawa bureau

Agriculture minister Andy Mitchell is considering more aggressive ways to promote packing plant expansion and offshore marketing of Canadian beef because of the continued United States ban on Canadian cattle.

It is a reaction to criticism of too tepid policies that haven't help make the cattle industry less dependent on shipments of live cattle to American packing plants.

Mitchell said ideas under consideration include:

n Direct loans or funding for proposed producer-owned plants.

n Helping upgrade provincially regulated plants to federal status so they could export product. Ten of the largest provincial plants might be eligible for upgrade if the owners were interested, but the minister cautioned that they would add little new capacity.

n Allowing plants interested in 100 percent BSE testing to do so as a marketing tool.

Mitchell told the House of Commons agriculture committee March 22 that $17 million allocated in the 2005 federal budget to add to the loan loss reserve program may be used to finance other approaches. Critics have complained that the reserve, designed to cover a portion of potential lender losses on loans to packer projects, is inadequate and after six months has not created more capacity.

Mitchell said he has heard the criticisms.

"I'm going to be very frank," he told the committee. "Colleagues on both sides of the aisle have made suggestions that there may be a better and more productive or additional ways to go about taking a look at slaughter capacity. I'm saying as minister, I'm quite prepared to entertain those suggestions."

Mitchell also indicated he may be softening the federal opposition to allowing plants to offer customers 100 percent testing of animals for BSE.

Ottawa and the cattle industry have been cool to the idea, arguing it is not scientifically necessary and could leave the impression random testing in the rest of the system is not as safe.

"We've made no specific decisions," said the minister. "There have been some recommendations about some approaches that we should consider in niche marketing, so for instance, there are folks who have come forward and said there are markets where we could sell where they are asking that 100 percent testing be done. For a commercial reason, somebody may decide that they want to do that."

He said other potential offshore niche markets government could help the industry exploit are for hormone-free or grass-fed beef.

The minister said Ottawa will consider funding a feasibility study on whether 100 percent testing of older animals would open new market opportunities.

He said the federal government soon will begin to contribute money to BSE compensation programs offered by the four western provinces to producers of ruminants other than cattle - elk, deer, bison, sheep and goats.

When will Ottawa begin to pay its 60 percent, asked Conservative agriculture critic Diane Finley.

"Sooner rather than later," replied Mitchell.

He also told MPs that the government's set-aside programs for cattle raised prices and injected almost $1 billion into the cattle sector.

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