Neighbors to the north irked by U.S. finger pointing

Monday, January 12, 2004

LETHBRIDGE, Alberta -- In the heart of Canada's cattle country, ranchers feel a bond with their American colleagues, one built on a century of trade.

"My area was settled by Texans and Texan cattle, and cattle have been moving back and forth ever since," said rancher Neil Jahnke, who runs 1,200 head near Gouldtown, in southwest Saskatchewan.

He and other Canadian ranchers view the land where they make their living as an uninterrupted range over which cattle, feed and processed beef move back and forth freely between Canada and the United States. The border is just a line on a map.

They insist the North American cattle industry is so intertwined that it makes little sense to differentiate between American and Canadian beef. That's why they're angry about American finger pointing following the discoveries last year of mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, in an Alberta Black Angus cow and a Washington state Holstein traced to Alberta.

What really steams them are efforts by some in the American cattle industry and politics to distance themselves from Canadian beef, including an ongoing U.S. ban on imports. They say that appears to blame Canada for the two cases of the brain-wasting disease.

"We've never viewed BSE as a Canadian or U.S. problem, it's a North American problem," Jahnke said.

"There's a real overreaction and hysteria over minimal risk to human health," complained Arno Doerksen, a rancher in Gem and chairman of Alberta Beef Producers.

"In all reality, the border should be opened tomorrow," said Rick Paskal, a rancher and feedlot operator in nearby Pitcher Butte.

Before BSE was found in the Alberta Black Angus in May, cattle and feed moved freely between the United States and Canada. Afterward, the United States banned most Canadian beef.

Still unknown is the source of the disease that infected that cow and the Washington state Holstein, which testing in December also determined had BSE. Scientists believe feed containing contaminated cattle parts is the main transmitter of mad cow disease, but no one yet knows where the feed came from.

That didn't stop U.S. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., from calling for all beef from cattle born, raised and slaughtered in the United States to be clearly labeled, and for all Canadian beef to be banned from America.

"We all know now the mad cow incident originated in Canada," Daschle said last week.

U.S. Department of Agriculture veterinarians believe the diseased Holstein was born a few months before the United States and Canada banned use of cattle byproducts in feed in 1997.

Mad cow disease is a public health concern because scientists believe humans who eat brain or spinal matter from an infected cow can develop variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. The incurable disease was blamed for 143 deaths in Britain, which suffered a mad cow disease outbreak in the 1980s.

Since the Washington case was discovered, American representatives have been busy trying to reassure trading partners that U.S. beef and related products -- even prepackaged French fries cooked in beef tallow -- are safe.

U.S. ranchers are anxious to reopen markets in dozens of countries that slammed shut after the Washington mad cow case, and Canadian ranchers fear their business will be sacrificed to protect American trade.

The United States is Canada's biggest beef customer, and the American ban has cost the Canadian cattle industry an estimated $2 billion since May. At its height, cattle trade between the two countries reached 1.7 million head of cattle a year.

The Canadian government, which also has seen foreign markets closed to its beef, has taken its own steps to reassure customers and protect its markets, last week dramatically increasing the number of cows it tests for the disease.

Mad cow disease is just the latest in a series of issues that have strained relations between the neighbors. Canada did not participate in the war with Iraq, but now wants to be able to bid on contracts to rebuild that country. The two countries also have long feuded over softwood lumber tariffs.

Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin contends there is little threat to human health from the two mad cow disease cases, and he intends to ask President Bush to lift the ban.

The Canadian Cattlemen's Association also wants to sit down with its American counterpart to "set an example for the world to guarantee food safety," said Jahnke, the group's president.

The National Cattlemen's Beef Association in the United States does not believe it is fair to stigmatize Canadian beef, said Karen Batra, a spokeswoman for the group.

"We've shown strong support for the Canadian cattlemen in May, and they have done the same thing for us on this one," Batra said. "We need to work on this issue collectively and cooperatively."

Scientists from both countries have been working together to identify and trace the mad cow cases, holding joint news conferences and refraining from inflammatory statements.

But even Ron DeHaven, chief veterinary officer for the USDA, appeared to draw a distinction between the two industries at a recent press conference, while acknowledging they are highly integrated.

"Despite where this cow might have originated, U.S. beef remains safe," DeHaven said. "We've not yet had a native-born case of BSE in the U.S."

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