KAY’S KORNER: Facts have been lost to self-interest

Cattle Market & Farm Reports, Editorials
Jan 31, 2005
by WLJ
It’s about time those folk who want to keep our border closed to Canadian cattle came clean. They’re not really interested in science or consumer confidence in the U.S. beef supply. They just want to keep making as much money as they’ve made since the border closed on May 20, 2003.
Cow-calf producers have just enjoyed the best two years of profits in at least the last 30 years (according to data from the Livestock Marketing Information Center). That’s unless their operation was badly hurt by the drought that still lingers in parts of the western U.S. So it’s understandable they see a border reopening as a threat. What I object to is that people can’t be honest about it. Since USDA published its final rule on January 4 to reopen the border to Canadian feeder and fed cattle, I’ve heard just about every convoluted argument about keeping the border closed that I could have imagined.
I didn’t hear anyone complaining about the border closing suddenly in 2003. Yet packers and cattle feeders who relied on Canadian cattle to help them stay in business were immediately impacted and have been since. We’ve seen at least three cattle slaughter plants close because of the loss of Canadian cattle. They didn’t complain because they recognized the border needed to be closed for a time. So why is it so difficult for people to understand that at some point, the border needed to reopen again.
Unfortunately, USDA muddied the reopening issue by taking a step-by-step approach. That never made sense to me. Once USDA had established that the Canadian cattle and beef supply was safe, strictly according to scientific criteria surrounding BSE safeguards, then full trade should have resumed in all cattle and beef products. That way, any impact on markets would have been spread as evenly as the impact of a 100 percent border closure was.
Instead, we have a final rule that contains a bizarre contradiction. It allows in beef from Canadian cattle 30 months of age and over but not the cattle themselves. USDA tied itself in knots on this because it was concerned about antagonizing R-CALF who had already successfully sued it last April. Yet R-CALF has sued USDA again anyway. We also have packers suing USDA over the contradiction. And we have NCBA on the other side demanding the beef part be withdrawn.
Yet USDA isn’t going to change a word of the final rule unless a court forces it. If it agrees to remove or change any part of the rule, it would play right into R-CALF’s hands over its latest lawsuit. USDA would be admitting its rule is not based on science and a judge would probably agree with R-CALF that the rule is arbitrary and capricious.
Also lost in the clamor are some basic facts. First, the BSE measures introduced by the U.S. and Canada since the 1980s are very similar. Both countries’ measures as they stand today are virtually identical. The most notable is the removal of specified risk material (SRMs) from all cattle. These are the materials that are believed to possibly harbor the early elements of BSE. It’s very important to realize that the removal of SRMs is the best way to protect consumers from being exposed to the human form of BSE. And the proper disposal of those SRMs means none of this material will find its way into cattle feed and thus be a threat to cattle.
Much has been made of Canada’s third BSE cow being born after the feed ban. The facts are these. In both Canada and the U.S., there was a grace period whereby producers could keep using feed produced before the bans took effect. The bans were on producing ruminant feed with any ruminant-derived material in it. Some people now say the government should have banned the use of all feed produced before the ban. But imagine the screams of protest if that had been suggested. In 1997, there wasn’t the same urgency about BSE there is today. Second, forcing producers to destroy feed would have been a huge financial hardship. And it would have been impossible to enforce.
The fact is, the U.S. could just as easily as Canada have a BSE case of an animal born after the 1997 feed ban. Many tons of feed produced before our ban were used on U.S. farms for at least a year after the ban. What would opponents of a border reopening say if the U.S. announced such a case tomorrow?
As for the argument that reopening the border will hurt the U.S.’s chances of resuming beef exports to Japan, that’s nonsense. Japan has made it clear it is not an issue. In fact, Japan may begin accepting Canadian beef before it accepts U.S. beef, based on how talks between the two countries’ Prime Ministers went the week before last. That sure would undermine arguments about how unsafe Canadian beef and cattle are.
The bottom line is that producers are protecting their bottom lines. Southern Plains cow-calf operation returns in 2004 exceeded $140 per cow, according to LIMC, up from $85 in 2003.These profits are blinding some people to the reality that the border will reopen, and that the sooner it does, the faster the U.S. market can return to normality.