CSPI Says Profits, Not Public Health, Drives Effort to Keep Canadian Border Closed

Despite the discovery of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease, in four older Canadian cattle, including one discovered in Washington state, there is no public health basis for preventing young Canadian animals from entering the United States, according to a new report from the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). The report says that since Canada has an effective mandatory cattle identification system, it would be much easier to track a Canadian cow from the slaughterhouse back to its farm of origin than it would be to track an American animal. That safeguard is essential, says CSPI, if public health authorities are to prevent cattle contaminated with BSE, E. Coli, or other hazards from entering the food or animal feed supply.

"Instead of trying to keep out competition from Canada, the American cattle industry should support a mandatory national animal identification and tracking system in this country," said CSPI food-safety director Caroline Smith DeWaal. "Shipping beef overseas would be easier, plus American consumers would have greater confidence that meat from any future mad cow doesn’t end up in supermarkets and restaurants. The animal ID system also would be enormously helpful in pinning down causes of food-borne illnesses caused by bacteria, which routinely kill thousands of people annually."

CSPI’s report comes two weeks after a federal judge issued a temporary order blocking the reopening of the border to Canadian cattle. The ban on importing Canadian animals was scheduled to end on March 8, but a group of American cattle producers sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), citing concerns about food safety. And, on March 3, the United States Senate passed a resolution calling for keeping the border closed. However, a recent USDA audit indicates that the three BSE-positive animals were all more than six years old and probably consumed feed produced before the ban on animal protein in ruminant feed went into full effect. And the Japanese government has indicated that Congressional action barring imports of Canadian cattle could actually further delay the resumption of U.S. exports to Japan.

"American ranchers’ alleged health concern about young Canadian cows exposing American consumers to BSE is all sizzle and no steak—-it has nothing to do with human health and everything to do with protecting their profits," DeWaal said.

Major industry players are divided over reopening the Canadian border, with many cattle producers opposed, and import-reliant processors, represented by the American Meat Institute (AMI), in favor. But the report notes that apart from the border issue, many beef stakeholders, notably AMI, the McDonald’s restaurant chain, and some individual ranchers, have voiced support for a mandatory system for cattle identification and tracking. The European Union and many other countries, including Australia (the world’s largest beef exporter), New Zealand, Japan, Brazil, and Argentina already have mandatory ID or traceability systems.

CSPI’s report, Name That Cow, recommends that the U.S. should move quickly to implement a mandatory national system requiring all cattle to bear ear tags or other visible identification indicating the farm of origin and year of birth.

The report also recommends that all high-risk cattle parts—including brains and small intestines—should be banned from animal feed and pet food, regardless of the age of the animal. Furthermore, says CSPI, spinal columns and neck bones from cattle of all should not be used in machines that separate meat from bones, and spinal cord should be banned from human food. CSPI also urges that the U.S. finalize, and Canada implement, a ban on downer cattle from entering the food supply.

"The question is how much longer USDA will delay implementing mandatory national cattle identification and other common sense reforms," DeWaal said. "That kind of food-dragging is isolating our cattle industry from the rest of the world."