On March 2, a federal district judge in Billings, Mont., granted a preliminary injunction to prevent the implementation of the Department of Agriculture's minimal-risk rule. This rule would have reestablished trade with Canada for live cattle under 30 months of age. The injunction will be in effect until a lawsuit brought by the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America against the USDA can be considered on its merits, or the injunction is overturned on appeal.
The United States placed a temporary ban on ruminants and ruminant products from Canada in May 2003, after officials reported a single case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy 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. If implemented, the rule 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 the rule would go into effect on March 7, 2005.
In early January, however, two cases of BSE were identified in Canada. 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.
To investigate the situation, the USDA sent a technical team to Canada in February (see JAVMA News, Feb. 15, 2005). On the basis of the team's assessment, on February 25 the USDA announced it would go ahead and implement the minimal-risk rule March 7.
The assessment, said Dr. Ron DeHaven, administrator of the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, affirmed the agency's science-based decision to begin lifting the ban on live ruminants and ruminant products from Canada that have virtually no risk to human or animal health.
The agency believes that compliance by feed mills and rendering facilities in Canada with its feed ban regulations is good and, just like the United States, Canada is continually looking for ways to make it even better. The USDA says it is confident that the animal and public health measures that Canada has in place to prevent BSE, combined with U.S. domestic safeguards, will provide the utmost protections to U.S. consumers.
The cattle producer organization R-CALF disagrees and filed a lawsuit, in an attempt to stop the reopening of the border. A judge granted a preliminary injunction five days before the minimal-risk rule was to go into effect.
R-CALF maintains that the rule creates substantial, irreparable harm for U.S. cattle producers. Once the rule is enacted, says R-CALF, cattle producers will not be able to protect themselves against the increased risk for BSE. In addition, they say, the adverse public perception that will result from relaxing the rule and the commingling of Canadian and U.S. products will further diminish domestic and foreign demand for U.S. beef.
Taking a different tact, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association has developed a list of 11 conditions it wants met before the rule is implemented, and is working toward this goal.
At press time, the future of the border opening remained uncertain. On March 17, the Department of Justice, on behalf of the USDA, filed a request with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, asking that the court overturn the decision issued by the District Court in Montana that blocked the reestablishment of trade with Canada. Only time will tell how the situation will play out.