Beef from Canada: Good thing or bad?

By Peter Graham

With the summer doldrums upon us and our hearts straying toward county fairs and the impending start of school, the politics of agriculture go on. Amid fears in our own country about new domestic BSE cases, the USDA has decided to reopen the border to Canadian beef after a two-year ban because of that nation’s own “Mad Cow” incidents. There are mixed reviews on the move.

Canadian producers, naturally, are elated by the news, after a disastrous two years without American export possibilities. American producers are less than enthused.

In North Dakota officials said they think reopening the border will hurt attempts to send U.S. beef overseas. That might be because of the jittery feeling it might cause among those whose fears of Mad Cow are more intense than their logic.

American producers are concerned that Japan, historically the largest importer of U.S. beef, will be a problem. It has refused shipments since the 2003 scare and subsequent U.S. ban of Canadian beef. The reopening of the border will make the luring back of Japanese markets that much tougher.

Mad Cow, which literally destroyed the British cattle industry, has made many of our trade partners skittish. Such markets as Taiwan and Egypt have extended bans based on the BSE scare in Texas. Worries over Canadian beef safety might exacerbate those fears.

North Dakota’s governor thinks it’s a fairness issue. He told the Associated Press that cattle is very important to his state and there is a need to make sure our export markets are really opening up at the same time we open our border with Canada.

An example of American concern is the resoluteness of a Montana group called R-CALF, once dismissed as radical, but brought to the forefront by Mad Cow concerns. R-CALF is a cattlemen’s group that is a ringleader in trade fights over the opening of the border and other BSE issues.

Some in the industry see the R-CALF group as anti-trade and protectionist, but many look to them as protectors of U.S. interests in the tug-of-war over beef import/export positions around the world. Whatever they are, R-CALF underscores the nervousness and concern BSE in any form, anywhere, engenders among cattlemen.

Dealt a blow by the announcement by Ag Secretary Mike Johanns’ announcement that the border would be reopened, R-CALF had earlier scored two victories in the fight. In 2004, they kept the federal government from expanding beef trade with Canada, and this March they delayed the USDA’s planned reopening of the border.

American beef producers are caught in a whirlwind of trade problems brought on by fear of BSE among our trade partners. While open trade with Canada is generally a good thing, care must be taken regarding BSE, more than just routine care. And, the Canadians must avoid any denial of the seriousness of the situation. Even then, testing methods must improve and money must be spent by governments to assure the quality and efficacy of the beef supply.

Only then will markets gradually return in Japan and other Pacific Rim nations. Only then will the once solid reputation of U.S. producers be polished enough to help us expand our export horizons. And, that’s something we really must do.

I’ll see ya!

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