Ranchers, beef industry celebrate long-awaited U.S. border re-opening
(Note: Language deception is carefully woven into this story...)
December 29, 2004
By Bob Weber, Canadian Press
Edmonton Journal

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Edmonton, Alberta, Canada (CP) - Cattle ranchers and beef industry officials were throwing cowboy hats in the air Wednesday after the United States announced sweeping plans for opening the border in March to nearly all Canadian exports of beef and live cattle.

"Isn't that wonderful," whooped Mac McLean, owner of two feedlots near Lethbridge, Altberta. "That's a big, big step. That's wonderful that they're going to do that."

But after 19 months of living without their largest market, many on the Canadian side warn that the relationship between the U.S. and Canadian industries will never be the same again.

"This has been a real dose of reality for us," said Arno Doerksen of the Alberta Beef Producers Association.

"The Canadian industry needs to understand that we need to diversify our marketing opportunities."

In a release, the U.S. Department Agriculture said it will now recognize Canada as a minimal-risk region for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), the scientific name for mad cow disease.

Beginning March 7, Canadian producers will be able to start shipping live cattle under the age of 30 months, as well as beef products from animals over 30 months old. Ruminants such as goats and elk will also be allowed.

Older live animals and breeding cattle will continue to be blocked.

"We are confident that imports of certain commodities from regions of minimal risk can occur with virtually no risk to human or animal health," said Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman.

It was music to Canadian ears.

"It is a major breakthrough that some thought would take many years," said Ted Haney of the Canada Beef Export Federation.

The decision means about 95 per cent of the trade in beef and cattle could resume in the new year, he said.

"Some in the U.S. worked for it; others worked hard to avoid this day."

Haney said cattle prices should begin to recover almost immediately.

"The livelihood of Canadian producers begins to improve today," he said.

Haney also said the U.S. rule would encourage other former markets to reopen their borders to Canadian beef. It also establishes the same rules for Canadians as the Americans want applied to U.S. ranchers.

"This is a great show of consistency in the U.S. actions and their expectations from others," he said.

Still, many Canadian producers will never view the beef-hungry southern market in the same way.

"The confidence that the U.S. is going to treat us fair and square is not there," said McLean.

"My two bits worth is, 'Keep your head up on it.' "

Clay Serby, Saskatchewan's deputy premier, said although the U.S. market will continue to be central to the Canadian industry, the lessons of the border closure have been learned.

"We'll work hard to develop our own packing industry in Canada," he said.

"We've all recognized when you put all your eggs in one basket you can find yourself in a situation like we did here in Canada when the border gets closed to us."

A number of investment groups, some rancher-led, are afoot to rebuild Canadian packing capacity after it disappeared in the 1990s in the face of a few giant multinational packers.

Still, International Trade Minister Jim Peterson welcomed Wednesday's news.

"Any improvement in seeing goods flows freely across the border is a step in the right direction," he said. "We hope to see similar footsteps on softwood lumber."

Canada's beef industry has been struggling since May 20, 2003, when it was announced a single breeder cow in northern Alberta tested positive for BSE.

Before the trade ban, animals regularly crossed the border and Canada sold more than 70 per cent of its live cattle to the U.S. That market was worth $1.8 billion in 2002.

The second largest customer, Mexico, came in at $200 million and Japan imported $81 million worth.

More than 4,200 jobs related to the beef industry have been lost, say federal statistics, most in Alberta, Ontario and Quebec.

The border closure also included ruminants such as deer, elk, sheep, goats, caribou and bison.

It's estimated the closure has cost the Canadian industry and rural communities about $5 billion. Federal and provincial governments have spent a total of $1.6 billion on aid for producers.

While the U.S. opened its border to boneless beef from cattle less than 30 months old last September, plans to expand the opening were curtailed when a second mad cow case emerged in a Canadian-born cow in Washington state.

The United States consequently lost its major beef trading partners.

BSE is a chronic, degenerative disorder affecting the central nervous system of cattle. Since it was first diagnosed in Great Britain in 1986, there have been more than 180,000 cases.

Canadian experts believe the infected Alberta cow had probably been fed ruminant meat and bone meal before the practice was banned in 1997.

It's believed humans can develop a fatal brain-wasting illness called new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease when they eat meat from infected animals.


Key events in Canada's mad cow crisis:

January 2003: Marwyn Peaster, a farmer near Wanham, Alberta., notices his Black Angus cow is ill and unable to stand. He ships it for slaughter.

January 31: The cow is condemned on the kill floor as unfit for human consumption. Its brain stem is sent to an Edmonton lab but is deemed low priority and not tested for months.

May 16: Tissue tests on the cow show bovine spongiform encephalopathy or BSE. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency in Winnipeg confirms the finding and the sample is sent to a British lab.

May 20: The British lab confirms the test results. The CFIA announces the cow was infected with BSE. The United States immediately closes its borders to Canadian beef and cattle and 33 more countries follow suit. Agriculture Minister Lyle Vanclief tells reporters: "I want to stress from the beginning this is one cow."

May 21: Mel McCrea from Baldwinton, Saskatchewan, gets a phone call telling him his ranch must be quarantined. Eventually 17 farms in B.C., Saskatchewan and Alberta are quarantined in the hunt for the birthplace of the cow.

June 5: Test results show none of the 1,200 animals slaughtered to date have BSE.

June 6: Four international inspectors arrive to review Canada's BSE investigation.

June 17: Federal Agriculture Minister Lyle Vanclief announces a beef industry compensation package, cost-shared with provinces, of up to $460 million.

July 18: Vanclief announces changes to slaughter rules as recommended by the international experts panel: cattle tissues at high risk to carry BSE -- notably brain and spinal cord -- must be removed at the slaughterhouse for cattle older than two and a half years.

July 26: More than 2,000 people from Alberta, Saskatchewan and Montana rally at the Coutts border crossing in southern Alberta to get the border reopened.

August 8: The U.S. and Mexico partially lift the ban on some Canadian beef, allowing some beef products but no cattle. A month later, boneless cuts are moving over the border.

September 14: Alberta Premier Klein tells a meeting of U.S. governors in Montana that "any self-respecting rancher would have shot, shoveled and shut-up," rather than report a case of mad cow. Klein later explains he was just reflecting on the absurdity of the situation.

October 2: Mexico, Canada's second largest beef market after the U.S., announces it will take some Canadian beef products still banned by U.S., including liver, kidney, heart and tongue.

October 8: Tests confirm the cow that sparked the Canadian crisis was born in Saskatchewan.

October 31: U.S. Department of Agriculture issues proposed rule to allow import of live Canadian cattle under age of 30 months.

December 23: U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman announces the first suspected U.S. case of mad cow -- a Holstein in Washington state -- but says "We remain confident in the safety of our food supply."

December 25: A British lab confirms earlier findings that the U.S. cow had BSE; 30 countries eventually close their borders to U.S. beef. Canada imposes a partial ban.

December 27: The USDA says it has information the infected cow came from an Alberta herd.

January 5, 2004: The comment period closes in the U.S. on the proposal to reopen the border to live Canadian cattle under 30 months, but officials say no decision will be made until the Washington state mad cow investigation is concluded.

January 6: DNA tests confirm the Washington state cow came from an Alberta herd but USDA chief veterinarian Ron DeHaven says: "Beef continues to be safe, whether this cow originated in Canada or not."

January 9: Bob Speller, the successor to Vanclief as agriculture minister, announces $92 million will be spent over the next five years to increase mad cow testing from the current level of 5,500 to 30,000.

January 13: U.S. President George Bush, meeting with Prime Minister Paul Martin at the Summit of the Americas in Mexico, promises renewed cooperation to keep beef safe.

February 24: Statistics Canada reports that farm income fell to its lowest level in three years in 2003 due in part to the mad cow crisis. Revenue from livestock fell 11 per cent, the largest such drop in more than a decade.

March 3: Klein, pressed by reporters on why his government blocked Alberta's auditor general from investigating allegations of meat packer price gouging, storms out of his news conference, saying: "I've had enough of this crap."

March 4: U.S. officials announce they will take public submissions until April 7 on whether to reopen the border to live Canadian cattle and beef products from older animals.

March 9: Klein, saying Media pressure forced him to reverse his position, orders Alberta's auditor general to determine if meat packers unfairly profited at the expense of cattle producers and consumers.

March 10: The federal agriculture committee grills the heads of Canada's three main meat-packing companies over allegations packers are gouging consumers and ranchers. The executives say they don't know how much aid money trickled down to them and added they have faced increased costs due to the crisis.

March 11: Alberta Agriculture Minister Shirley McClellan releases a departmental report into mad cow aid programs. The report can't confirm whether meat packers gouged consumers and cattle producers but McClellan says the province achieved its chief aim of keeping the cattle industry alive.

March 22: Martin visits a third-generation ranch family in the heart of Alberta cattle country to announce an extra $995 million in mad cow aid money, two-thirds of which will go directly to cattle producers.

March 30: The federal agriculture committee orders Canada's top five meat-packing companies to open their books to them in private by April 21 to prove that the companies have not been profiting unfairly during the crisis.

April 7: The USDA stops taking submissions on whether the U.S. should re-open its market to Canadian cattle. Veneman promises to review the submissions quickly.

April 19: U.S. changes import rules and begins accepting more beef products from Canada, including all bone-in cuts and processed beef from animals under 30-months of age. Canada's beef industry lauds the move.

April 30: Martin pays his first visit to the White House. Bush promises the U.S. will drop its ban on live Canadian cattle "as soon as possible" but gives no firm commitment on when trade would resume. Martin later says he found Bush's response "very encouraging."

May 2004: U.S. Agriculture Department reaches deal with R-CALF USA, a protectionist cattle group, to halt imports of Canadian processed beef products such as ground beef and sausage until the larger issue of dropping the ban on live Canadian cattle is settled.

May 26: R-CALF, the Consumer Federation of America, Public Citizen, a national, non-profit consumer agency and the U.S. Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports, press the U.S. government to hold public hearings on Canadian imports and want experts from the Institute of Medicine and National Academy of Sciences to calculate the chances of more mad cow cases.

July 23: A risk assessment study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Agriculture supports reopening the border to live Canadian cattle.

August 3: Meat-packers nearly tripled their profits since the mad cow crisis hit Canada, says a report by Alberta's auditor general.

August 12: Angry after struggling to survive the mad cow crisis for 15 months, a small group of Canadian producers launches a multimillion-dollar claim against the U.S. government in a bid to force the reopening of the border to live cattle.

November 29: A report from BMO's economics department says Canadian cattle producers have lost about $5 billion since the crisis began.

November 30: During a visit to Canada, Bush says his administration is working "as quickly as we can" to resolve the mad cow trade dispute so the free flow of cattle across the border can resume.

December 10: Ottawa proposes banning high risk material from animal feed, pet food and fertilizers, in an effort to prevent mad cow disease.

December 29: The U.S. announces plans to reopen the border on March 7 to nearly all Canadian exports of beef and live cattle.

Facts about Canada's mad cow case:

What it is: Bovine spongiform encephalopathy, commonly known as BSE or mad cow disease, is a chronic, degenerative disorder that affects the central nervous system of cattle.

What is does: Kills brain cells, creating gaps in tissue and giving the brain a sponge-like appearance.

Ways it is transmitted: Cow to calf, spontaneously, by eating ruminant feed.

Human form of BSE: Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD).

How people contract BSE: By eating the meat, particularly brain and spinal cord, from infected animals.

Symptoms: Memory loss, mood swings and lack of coordination, followed by shakiness, dementia and paralysis.

Human deaths from vCJD in Canada: One Saskatchewan man after he reportedly ate contaminated beef in the United Kingdom.

Number of cases in Canada: Two, one found in a seven-year-old beef cow from a Wanham, Alberta., farm in May 2003. The other case was found on a ranch near Red Deer, Alberta., in 1993. The cow had been imported from the United Kingdom.

Size of Canadian beef industry: $30 billion a year.

Value of exports: $11 million a day.

Estimated economic impact of BSE to Canada's beef sector since May 2003: $5 billion.


Copyright 2004, The Canadian Press.