A proposed U.S. Department of Agriculture rule designed to boost beef exports would ease some mad cow disease import restrictions and weaken protections against the illness, a coalition of 31 mostly farm and rancher groups said.
Under the rule, proposed in March, the USDA would adopt the same criteria used by the World Organization for Animal Health to identify a country’s risk status for mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy. This creates a loophole in which beef or cattle could be imported from nations that don’t have effective feed bans, the main U.S. safeguard against BSE, Bill Bullard, chief executive officer of R-CALF United Stockgrowers of America, said yesterday in an e-mail.
“We were astounded that USDA would propose to further weaken our already weakened BSE protections,” Bullard said, a week after the agency announced that the nation’s first case of mad cow disease had been found in six years. The groups, which include ranchers in Kansas, Colorado, Nevada and other states along with the Center for Food Safety, have written to the USDA asking that the rule’s comment period, set to expire May 15, be extended for 60 days.
Some trading partners have cited inconsistencies between U.S. and international standards as a reason to maintain restrictions on American beef imposed after the first U.S. mad- cow case in 2003. The most recent infection, in a California dairy cow, has prompted Indonesia to restrict trade while South Korea has sent a delegation to examine U.S. safeguards against the fatal brain-wasting illness.
The USDA declined to comment in response to an inquiry about R-CALF’s request.
Bob McCan, vice president of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the largest U.S. rancher group, said the proposed rule should be made final without delay. The proposal is “science-based,” something the cattlemen have been pushing for since the first U.S. BSE case almost a decade ago, he said.
The Paris-based World Organization for Animal Health, known by its French acronym of OIE, classifies countries as having “neglible,” “controlled” or “undetermined” risk for BSE based on the number of cases they’ve found and the quality of their safeguards, which include a verifiable ban on feed made from other mammals, a practice that may spread the disease to animals that eat it.
The U.S. is classified as a controlled-risk country for BSE. Under the USDA’s rule, the agency may still ban livestock and beef from areas it believes pose a BSE danger. The rule does not affect domestic safeguards.
“USDA’s proposal maintains the safeguards that have been in place in the U.S. for years and served us well,” Jim Hodges, executive vice president of the American Meat Institute, an industry group that includes Tyson Foods Inc. (TSN:US) and JBS Swift & Co., said in an e-mail. “To allege that the proposal will weaken safeguards is simply not supported by the facts.”
People can contract a fatal form of BSE by eating tissue from infected animals. There has never been a confirmed human fatality from consuming U.S. beef. Global cases of infected animals, which peaked at more than 37,000 in 1992, last year totaled 29, according to the OIE.
The U.S. exported $11.9 billion of red meat last year, more than double the $5.4 billion in imports, USDA data show.
In a related development, the USDA said yesterday that investigators had located a calf of the infected California cow in another state and that the animal tested negative for the disease after being euthanized.
Investigators also learned that another calf born to the cow in the last two years was stillborn, the USDA said in an e- mail, without saying if there were other progeny.
Two dairies associated with the case are now quarantined, and a calf ranch where the infected cow had been raised 10 years ago is also being investigated, the USDA said. No animals from the cow’s birth cohort have been found.
Ten feed firms identified as suppliers to the dairy where the diseased cow was located are being investigated, the USDA said. Meat and bone-meal distributed from the rendering facility to which the carcass of the cow was being delivered meet federal labeling requirements, the department said.
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