The issue of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) has been elevated the past several weeks with another finding of BSE in the Canadian herd and USDA's announcement to categorize Canada as a minimal risk region.
And that's only the beginning.
As earlier reported, on Friday the National Cattlemen's Beef Association sent a memo to its members stating the largest beef association would be revisiting its position on the Canada border rule. NCBA is sending a fact-finding team to sort out details of whether Canada is fully complying with its BSE firewall measures and see how many animals would actually be ready to export once the border reopened.
In its memo, NCBA is insisting by "March 7 trade be re-established with Japan and South Korea and expanded in Mexico through negotiations between the highest level of government officials or further action will be taken."
USDA and the American Farm Bureau Federation warn against such actions. When Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman was asked that since NCBA had obviously changed its stance on the border and the entire cattle industry is now against the rule, whether it was time to give up on the rule. Veneman laughed and replied, "We've continuously said the rules and regulations need to be based on sound science."
She continues by saying USDA has tried to set a world example in dealing with BSE. "If we don't walk the walk by basing our decisions on sound science we lose credibility."
AFBF President Bob Stallman states the organization strongly supports the Canada rule as it is currently written, and says "it sends a strong signal to the public and sets a positive example for our trading partners," he says. "We believe linking the two markets [Japan and Canada] is dangerous."
During its national convention going on until Jan. 12, farm bureau members will decide policy decisions. The Oklahoma Farm Bureau is proposing a resolution against the Canada rule. The entire body will vote on the resolution this week.
Restoring trade is No. 1 priority
There have been several calls from legislators the past several days for more involvement at the highest level to restore trade with Japan. Secretary of Agriculture designee Gov. Mike Johanns indicates restoring trade with the Asian countries will be his No. 1 priority upon entering office.
But it may not be that easy. Veneman explains that it'll take high-level contacts in Japan to get over the last hurdle to trade resumption. She says Japan's agriculture ministry has been "stonewalling every attempt" the U.S. has made to base things on science.
Veneman adds that despite that Korea has never had a confirmed case of BSE, the country refuses to allow U.S. beef exports until Japan resumes trade. She says it is clearly a "political issue" driven by emotions rather than science.
Clarifying some potential misconceptions
John Masswohl, director of international relations for the Canadian Cattlemen's Association, expects that between now and March 7 it will be a bumpy road for his fellow Canadian cattlemen. Each week new reports will throw curves into the road to trade normalization.
Producers may be beginning to worry about a glut of Canadian cattle being shipped south once March 7th hits. When USDA released its rule for live cattle resumption with Canada, an economic analysis predicted that approximately 2 million cattle would be sent from Canada to the U.S. for slaughter over the next 12 months, creating a slight decrease in market prices although having a positive net economic impact on the U.S. Masswohl says the number is much too high, and nearly 1 million cattle would have to be imported from the U.S. and then sent back to the U.S. for slaughtering to reach that number.
Numbers from Cattle-Fax indicate the number to be closer to 500,000 to 600,000 cattle. Masswohl says of those 600,000 cattle, only 180,000 are under 30 months of age and would be eligible for export. He says Canadian feedlot inventories are actually down 12-18% while Canadian slaughter capacity has increased from 72,000 head per week in May 2003 to currently 84,000 head per week.
Another issue that has producers concerned is the question of whether Canada is complying with its feed ban, first reported in the Canadian Vancouver Sun in mid-December. The paper reports that a Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) investigation was examining how 59% of 70 labeled vegetarian feed samples contained some level of animal protein.
Masswohl explains that the CFIA investigation is a follow-up of a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) which also found that 19 of 39 U.S. tested vegetarian labeled feed samples contained some level of animal protein. There is no certainty that the feed samples are even ruminant, because the tests only detected animal proteins. Ruminant byproducts are still allowed to be used in poultry and swine feeds.