The Department of Agriculture is sending a technical team to Canada to evaluate the circumstances surrounding the recent bovine spongiform encephalopathy cases in Canada.
"The result of our investigation and analysis will be used to evaluate appropriate next steps in regard to the (minimal) risk rule," said Dr. Ron DeHaven, administrator of the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
At press time, the nine-member team was scheduled to make its trip during the week of Feb. 24. Dr. John Clifford, deputy administrator of USDA-APHIS, will head up the team, which will be composed of epidemiologists, risk analysts, ruminant feed ban experts, and an auditor from the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service who will review Canada's system for the ruminant-to-ruminant feed ban. Staff from the Food and Drug Administration and international agricultural scientists will also accompany the USDA team.
"We are essentially going to go up there and participate in Canada's epidemiological investigation," says Jim Rogers, a spokesperson for the USDA. "We are going to help them where we can. We are also going to see exactly what they are doing, what their system looks like while it is in play, and whether there are any potential links among the various positive animals that are in Canada."
The identification of the BSE cases came at a critical time. On Dec. 29, 2004, the USDA announced it would allow imports of live cattle less than 30 months of age and certain other commodities from regions deemed minimal risk for BSE. The USDA designated Canada as the first minimal-risk region and said that as of March 7, 2005, the United States would again start importing certain ruminants, ruminant products, and byproducts from its North American neighbor.
The United States placed a temporary ban on ruminants and ruminant product imports from Canada on May 20, 2003, after officials reported a single case of BSE in an Alberta cow. In August 2003, the USDA partially lifted the ban, and the minimal-risk rule, published in the Jan. 4, 2005 Federal Register, was aimed at further relaxing it.
The same day that the USDA made the announcement about the rule, Canada divulged that it had identified a suspected BSE case. This case was confirmed days later and another one was identified soon after. The infected animals were detected through a recently enhanced national surveillance program that tests high-risk animals, those born before or shortly after the 1997 ban on the use of most mammalian proteins in animal feed intended for cows and other ruminants. Bovine spongiform encephalopathy is spread through feeding contaminated meat and bonemeal from cattle with the disease.
According to statements made by the USDA in January, Canada meets the standards to be deemed minimal-risk. The standards include having a prohibition on specified-risk materials in human food, surveillance for BSE at levels that meet or exceed international guidelines, and appropriate epidemiologic investigations, risk assessment, and risk mitigation measures imposed as necessary.
Since 1990, Canada has maintained stringent import restrictions preventing the entry of live ruminants and ruminant products, including rendered protein products, from countries that have found BSE in native cattle or are considered to be a substantial risk for the degenerative neurologic disease. Canada is also thought to effectively enforce its ruminant-to-ruminant feed ban.
The USDA says the new minimal-risk region rule will continue to protect against the introduction of BSE in the United States, while removing unnecessary prohibitions on importing certain commodities from minimal-risk regions for the disease.
In a commentary article published in the Washington Times in January, Sen. Wayne Allard of Colorado, who is a veterinarian, argued that the identification of the few BSE cases should not be used as an excuse to stop trade resumption. He wrote: "The new rule is grounded in solid, sound science, and will help end a situation that has wreaked havoc on beef trade for too long. It will protect the integrity of the human food supply system and stabilize agriculture trade." The border closing, he says, has created a market imbalance that has hurt the U.S. cattle and beef industries.
According to an economic analysis by the USDA, the border closing has created a market imbalance and has led, in part, to the layoff of people in the U.S. processing industry because some companies have reduced slaughter as a result of tight supplies. The analysis concluded that opening the border to Canada is preferable, in terms of net benefits, to the status quo.
In January, American Meat Institute Foundation President James Hodges maintained that the United States should not shift course because of the new Canadian BSE cases. "The U.S. should move forward with its decision to import live Canadian cattle and meat products, because firewalls to ensure BSE prevention and food safety are intact," Hodges said.
In early January, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association was also for the minimal-risk rule and designating Canada as a minimal-risk country, but added some qualifications after the second BSE case in January was confirmed. Additionally, it wants trade reestablished with Japan, South Korea, and Mexico. The NCBA is sending a trade team to Canada on a fact-finding mission and wants the USDA to clarify the rule regarding the importation of heifers, age verification, procedures for importation of live cattle, and other issues. The association requested a Food and Drug Administration audit of Canada's compliance with the feed ban, and the USDA technical team going to Canada will do such an audit.
Other groups, such as the cattle producer organization R-CALF-USA, believe that relaxing U.S. protections against importing live Canadian cattle infected with BSE and beef products from Canada is based on a gross error in judgment. In January, R-CALF-USA filed a lawsuit against the USDA in U.S. District Court, in an attempt to stop the reopening of the border.
At press time, the American Association of Bovine Practitioners and the AVMA had not taken a position on the reopening.