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R-calf Hypocricy

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Feb 12, 2005
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The Vocal Point
Exposing the hypocrisy in R-CALF's border closure suit

by Dan Murphy on 3/25/05 for Meatingplace.com

No matter how vigorous the discussion over policy issues these days, the partisan nature of the debate seems to result in little more than unappealing choices among unattractive options.

Whether the issue is the war in Iraq, drilling in Alaska or reforming Social Security, the longer the debate continues, the less the chance of reaching a compromise - much less a consensus-on policy.

For the beef industry, the debate that is unarguably the most important one near-term is the re-opening of the border to imports of Canadian cattle. In this case, though, further examination of each side's position must lead toward supporting the only resolution that makes sense: resumption of trade - and sooner, not later.

In fact, after reading through the legal brief filed by the National Meat Association as intervenor in the federal appeal of R-CALF's lawsuit against the Department of Agriculture, which resulted in an injunction keeping the border closed, it is amazing that the legal issues have become so muddied.

There is a running argument in political circles over the impact of "activist judges," who "legislate from the bench." It's a huge problem for Republicans when it involves gay marriage; much less of a concern in cases such as the lawsuit seeking to overturn the election of Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire in Washington state. Nevertheless, the trend toward using the courts as the muscle to overturn regulatory decisions is troubling because it blurs the separation between the branches of government.

In the case of Judge Richard Cebull, the District Court judge who issued an injunction keeping the border closed until arguments are heard on the merits of USDA's order permitting the resumption of trade in Canadian cattle, it smacks of activism to an exponential power.

In its brief, NMA's legal team noted that for an injunction to be issued, the law requires that the plaintiff (R-CALF) must demonstrate;

o A substantial likelihood of success on the merits of the case;
o The possibility of "irreparable injury" if injunctive relief is not granted;
o An advancement of the public interest.

The first point is debatable, the second suspect, and the third absolutely ridiculous.

R-CALF's motives have nothing to do with the "public interest," and everything to do with advancing its members' own narrow economic interests.

Consider: For all R-CALF's hot air about the alleged threat to public health if "BSE-infected" cattle from Canada are allowed to enter the United States, it was only seven months ago that a furor erupted in Alberta after some local feedlot operators and producers tried to block a shipment of cattle owned by a member of R-CALF from being processed at Cargill's High River beef packing plant.

At the time, Cargill announced it would no longer knowingly slaughter cattle owned by members of R-CALF.

"Our Canadian producers were facing a dire situation then - still are," Robert Meijer, Cargill's director of public affairs, told Meatingplace.com.. "With shackle space at a premium, we had to make sure the [Canadian] producers who are the backbone of our business got preference."

More to the point, how hypocritical can you get? At the same time that Bill Bullard, R-CALF USA's CEO, was characterizing USDA's plan to re-open the border to imports of Canadian bone-in beef a year ago as "arbitrary [and] capricious" and likely to "increase the risk of importing contaminated beef from cattle infected with BSE," his own members were north of the border buying feeder cattle at a discount.

"USDA is playing fast and loose with the safety and health of U.S. consumers," Bullard has said on numerous occasions, and has said his group's efforts are motivated by the "broad public health and economic concerns at stake."

To put it mildly, that's bull crap.

As NMA's brief makes clear, the issue here is economic: Whose interests are most important in policymaking? The larger beef industry in both Canada and the United States, or a small cadre of producers clearly benefiting from an artificial restraint of trade?

Even the notoriously critical Center for Science in the Public Interest issued a report this week stating that "there is no public health basis for preventing young Canadian animals from entering the United States."

"Instead of trying to keep out competition from Canada, the American cattle industry should support a mandatory national animal identification and tracking system in this country," said CSPI food-safety director Caroline Smith DeWaal. "Shipping beef overseas would be easier, plus American consumers would have greater confidence that meat from any future mad cow doesn't end up in supermarkets and restaurants."

CSPI's recommendations come almost exactly three weeks after the U.S. Senate passed another of its grandstanding resolutions, this time calling for continued closure of the Canadian border. In reference to the so-called health threats that prompted the vote, Smith DeWaal noted that, "American ranchers' alleged health concern about young Canadian cows exposing American consumers to BSE is all sizzle and no steak. It has nothing to do with human health and everything to do with protecting their profits."

Listen, when CSPI lines up in support of the meatpacking industry, that ought to serve as a flashing neon sign for the appellate court: R-CALF's public health posturing is as phony as Rep. Tom Delay's born-again commitment in "compassion" for those needing government's help.

The judge who sided with R-CALF erred by failing to defer to USDA's "well-reasoned, careful rulemaking," NMA's brief stated, and "abused its discretion in accepting only the public interest R-CALF claimed and failing to consider the harm to other parties."

This is the bottom line: Continued prohibition of beef trade between two countries that mutually benefited from it will harm all parties in the dispute - even the long-term interests of R-CALF.

As Meijer noted, "We're optimistic that we will meet the challenge we have ahead of us in the short term, because at the end of the day, we believe that the truth will ultimately win out."

For the sake of his company, and the rest of the industry in both countries, one can only hope.

Dan Murphy is a freelance writer and former editor of MMT magazine based in the Pacific Northwest . His column, THE VOCAL POINT, appears in this space each Friday.

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