USDA’s ‘mad cow’ circus act


The only thing worse than the USDA’s timing in the announcement of new rules to permit Canadian live cattle and cow beef imports into the U.S. are the three reasons it gives to support the rules.
The timing was, uh, less than perfect.
Three days after USDA’s Dec. 29 announcement of “mad cow,” or BSE, rule changes that will bring an estimated 1.5 million to 2 million Canadian feeder and fat cattle to the United States, Canada confirmed its second case of mad cow.
On Jan. 3, however, the sublime became the absurd.
Ron DeHaven, administrator of USDA’s Animal and Plant Health and Inspection Service, noted the newly-found mad cow would not derail plans to open the U.S. market to billions of pounds of unlabeled, unidentified Canadian beef.
In short, explained DeHaven, under international standards Canada with “roughly 5.5 million cattle over 24 months of age … could detect up to 11 cases of BSE in this population and still be considered a minimal-risk country. …”
‘Nonsense.’ That may be the sound science to DeHaven and USDA, but it’s market nonsense to most U.S. cattlemen and consumers.
If Canada finds 11 or five or even one more mad cow after the border is reopened, the American cattle market will crack like an egg – swiftly and easily.
USDA’s three reasons for changing its BSE rule also defy common sense.
The first two arrive in one baloney-laden sentence from the Animal and Plant Health and Inspection Service: “This rule ensures the continued protection of the U.S. food and feed supply from BSE, while removing unnecessary prohibitions on the importation of certain commodities from minimal-risk regions.”
Importing live cattle and boxed, bone-in cow beef – both currently banned – from Canada cannot ensure “the continued protection of U.S. food and feed supply from BSE.”
In fact, it’s more likely to ensure just the opposite.
After all, the only known BSE case in the United States, the Dec. 2003 Washington state dairy cow, had Canadian roots.
Add that Holstein to the two BSE positive cows found in Canada, and our neighbors up north are three-out-of-three when it comes to this continent’s mad cow count.
Three-for-three isn’t a bad if you’re batting cleanup for the New York Yankees. It is terrible, however, if you’re sending Canadian beef to American supermarkets.
COOL. Moreover, after March 7 U.S. consumers will not know if the beef in their local stores is Canadian or American because U.S. meatpackers, with the aid of their handmaidens at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, have squashed every effort to enforce mandatory country-of-origin labeling.
Also, few rules that guard the health of the U.S. cattle herd are unnecessary and no rule is unnecessary if it protects and enhances the quality and safety of American beef both here and abroad.
For proof, ask Japan.
Most maddening.’‘ But the third reason the Animal and Plant Health and Inspection Service cites to reopen the 5,335-mile-long U.S. border to Canadian cattle and beef is the most maddening.
“By establishing criteria for minimal-risk regions, the United States has taken a leadership role in fostering trade of low-risk products with countries that have a low incidence of BSE and historically strong risk mitigation measures.”
Alas, this market-cracking reopening of the U.S. beef meat market to Canada’s live cattle and boxed cow beef is about trade.
Indeed, explains USDA, “fostering trade” is more important than the health, safety or financial future of America’s 280 million consumers, 95 million head of beef cattle, 9 million head of dairy cows or 700,000 cattle producers.
Golly, if fostering trade is that crucial, perhaps the Bush administration will soon allow Americans to import cheaper, tested medical drugs from Canada as well as its cheaper, untested cattle and meat.
What it’s really about. No, the new rule isn’t about safe food, unnecessary rules or fostering trade.
It’s not even about money. After all, USDA’s cost-benefit analysis of the rule shows that it will bleed an estimated $2.91 billion from American cattlemen and lower U.S. beef prices by a guessed 6- to 26-cents per American.
No, the new rule is about shirts.
If one more mad cow pops up in either the United States or Canada after March 7, American cattlemen will lose their shirts.
(Alan Guebert’s Farm and Food File is published weekly in more than 75 newspapers in North America. He can be contacted at


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Alan Guebert was raised on an 800-acre, 100-cow southern Illinois dairy farm. After graduation from the University of Illinois in 1980, he served as a writer and editor at Professional Farmers of America, Successful Farming magazine and Farm Journal magazine. His syndicated agricultural column, The Farm and Food File, began in June, 1993, and now appears weekly in more than 70 publications throughout the U.S. and Canada. He and spouse Catherine, a social worker, have two adult children.