WASHINGTON — Four sick cows have caused a trade dispute that stretches from Canada to Japan to the U.S. Capitol.
The fight pits a coalition of Democrats, ranchers and Western Republicans against the White House, the Canadian government and the U.S. meatpacking industry.
In 2003, the Department of Agriculture halted imports of Canadian cattle after one cow was found with bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease. Since then, Canadian officials have reported three more infected cattle. Humans can get the fatal disease by eating infected meat, although human cases are very rare.
The Department of Agriculture had planned to reopen the border this Monday, but last Wednesday a Montana judge delayed the reopening. Later that day, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution in favor of keeping the border closed.
At the same time, Japan has kept its border closed to U.S. meat imports because of the Canadian mad cow scare. Members of Congress from farm states sent letters to Japanese ambassador Ryozo Kato with a veiled threat of sanctions against Japanese tires unless Japan accepts U.S. meat imports.
Both of Colorado’s senators, Republican Wayne Allard and Democrat Ken Salazar, signed the letter. Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, R-Fort Morgan, led the effort in the House to get 30 representatives to sign the letter.
“Local ranchers are suffering economically because unreasonable demands have been made that go beyond mere safety concerns, or even sound science,” Musgrave said.
The Japanese embassy has not taken a position on the letter, a spokeswoman said.
Allard, a veterinarian, called for the government to reopen the Canadian border, saying the United States should lead by example if it wants the Japanese border reopened.
“Canada is one of our most important trading partners,” Allard said during a debate in the Senate. “If we cannot rationally restore the beef and cattle trade with our most important trading partner, I ask the question: How will we ever restore trade on a global scale?”
However, 52 senators, including most Democrats and 12 Republicans, voted to keep the border closed. The House has not voted on the issue. President Bush promised to veto the bill if it makes it to his desk.
R-CALF, a group representing cattlemen, went to court to keep the Canadian border closed, arguing that the health risks to American cattle and consumers are too high. The group also lobbied Congress on the issue.
But meatpackers, who buy cattle on the open market and process the meat, say the ranchers’ opposition to Canada is really about keeping cattle prices high.
“Today’s vote was not about public health; it was about protectionism,” said Mike Brown, senior vice president of legislative affairs for the American Meat Institute. “The longer groups like R-CALF can keep out Canadian cattle and beef, the higher they can sustain U.S. cattle prices and their own profits.”
The Canadian cattle harvest is up 14 percent, from 72,000 per week last year to 82,000 per week this year.
By allowing cheap boxed Canadian beef over the border, American meatpackers say they are playing on an unlevel field.
“We’ve been eating Canadian beef since 2003,” Jim Herlihy, Greeley Swift & Co. spokesman said. “It’s boxed beef versus live animals. The same animals the (U.S. Department of Agriculture) is trying to open the border to are coming over in boxes; no one is making a case that these should be stopped.
“This is clearly not an argument about food safety. It’s not an argument about science. It’s an argument about protecting a market for cattle. The losers in this case are the American beef processors.”
A Colorado State University study on Swift shows that the company’s 10 percent slowdown over the last year has cost Weld County between $250 and $300 million.
“The irony is that we’re eating this beef anyway,” Herlihy said. “What are we accomplishing other than hurting the economy of Colorado and the personal economics of thousands of workers?”
However, R-CALF spokeswoman Shae Dodson said health is the group’s main concern.
“R-CALF has created a positive side effect for the markets, but that’s not our main goal. Our goal is to safeguard the health of the American herd,” she said. “We want Canada to have (mad cow) eradicated from its herd before we re-establish trade with them.”
Salazar said he wants to see Canadian imports resume in the long run.
“The fact of the matter is there are questions the Department of Agriculture should be answering before lifting the ban,” Salazar said.
He said the government should set up a program to verify that all Canadian cattle are free of mad cow disease, and also create a system to identify and track individual animals. Salazar believes these steps would reassure the Japanese government, as well.
Times-Call staff writer Jenn Ooton contributed to this report.