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What’s all the fuss about the Canadian border and beef imports?

Q & A: Mad cows and the Canadian border dispute

Q: What’s all the fuss about the Canadian border and beef imports?
A: Since the beginning of 2003, there have been four confirmed cases of mad cow in North America. This brain wasting disease, which is always fatal, it believed to be transmitted to humans by eating infected meat. Three of these cases were found in Canada, while the fourth case was found in the U.S. The fact that Canada has found three cases of mad cow disease to the United States’ one – and that one appears to have been born in Canada — suggests that Canada may have a more serious problem than the U.S.. The U.S. ended imports from Canada in late May 2003 after mad cow disease was discovered in Alberta. Two other cases from Alberta, Canada were confirmed in January, 2005.
Q: Should the Canadian border be open again to cattle and beef imports?
A: No. Current Canadian surveillance efforts are insufficient. In 2004, both Canada and the U.S. test less than one percent of animals slaughtered. In contrast, European countries test all animals over a certain age at slaughter.
Q. What’s the situation like in our own backyard?
A. Significant improvements in mad cow prevention programs are needed on both sides of the border. Dangerous loopholes exist in our own laws. For example, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) still allows cattle remains which can carry the disease-causing agent to be fed to other animals, such as pigs, and chickens, whose remains can then be fed back to cows. Even the remains of an animal known to carry a form of mad cow disease could go into rendered feed, under current FDA rules.
Q. What does Consumers Union propose to remedy the situation?
A. We favor a four-point action plan:

  1. The U.S. should keep the border closed and prohibit beef imports from Canada at this time,
  2. The U.S. and Canada should eliminate loopholes in their feed ban rules. Both countries should prohibit feeding of cow’s blood to cattle immediately. In addition, the U.S. should also ban food waste and poultry litter including excrement in animal feed. As soon as possible both countries should ban feeding all mammalian protein to food animals.
  3. The U.S. and Canada should inspect and enforce feed rules at all feed production facilities, including sampling and testing of animal feed.
  4. All cows over 20 months old should be tested for mad cow disease.

Q: What’s the current situation regarding the Canadian border?
A: The U.S. Department of Agriculture is pushing to re-open the Canadian border to allow the importing of all beef and live cattle. However, on March 2, U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull in Montana decided to delay the proposed March 7 reopening of the border to Canadian cattle, saying there are too many unanswered questions which at this time could unnecessarily place our nation’s public health at risk. The injunction against the reopening of the border was sought by R-CALF USA, a group of cattle farmers and ranchers.
Q: What should be our policy regarding importing beef from countries that have had confirmed cases of BSE?
A: “If BSE is found in a country, the United States should not even consider accepting imports of live ruminants and ruminant products from that country unless that country is testing all cattle over the age of 20 months at slaughter, has instituted a full ban on feeding of mammal protein to food animals for at least eight years, and has a thorough enforcement program with widespread inspections to insure compliance with the feed ban. The USDA may also impose other restrictions on imports to insure safety, particularly in regard to countries that are exhibit significant numbers of BSE-positive cattle” (www.consumersunion.org/pub/ core_food_safety/001002.html).
Q. Isn’t there a similar trade issue with Japan?
A: Yes, in reverse. Japan is refusing to accept U.S. cattle over the age of 20 months unless they have been tested for BSE. Japan is willing to accept cattle under the age of 20 months if the age can be accurately verified such as through a national animal identification system. We think Japan’s request is justified and believe that all cattle over the age of 20 months should be tested.
Q: What about labeling meat and letting consumers make their own choices?
A: Given the uncertainties as to risks involved in the border opening, we’re disappointed that Congress caved in to meat industry pressure last year and delayed implementation of Country of Origin labeling for meat to 2006. Consumers would like to know where their steaks come from, so they can make their own decisions about whether or not they want to eat Canadian beef. We have labels on canned food, clothing and even automobiles telling us where they were made. Why not meat?
Q: What should Congress do?
A: On March 3, the U.S. Senate voted 52-46 to keep the Canadian border closed to live cattle. We are urging the House of Representatives to do the same by supporting House Joint Resolution 23, which would keep the Canadian border closed.
Q: What can I do to help?
A: While the scheduled reopening of the border has been temporarily halted, the issue is still very much up in the air. The Senate has spoken forcefully in favor of keeping the border closed. Now all eyes are on the House. You can log unto www.NotinMyFood.org and send a letter to your representative to make your voice heard!

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