Over the past few weeks, several events relating to the trade of Canadian cattle have emerged. First, USDA issued rules that would allow cattle under 30 months of age into the United States. The American Meat Institute responded with a lawsuit claiming the rules were too prohibitive. Then, in a case of bad timing for AMI and the Canadians a cow was discovered with bovine spongiform encephalopathy in Alberta.
The latest BSE case does remind us that USDA should move with caution and provides opponents of opening the border with new ammunition. On the other hand, the affected cow was much older 30 months old and it is believed to have become infected from contaminated feed before the feed ban in 1997.
It should also be noted that Canada’s testing protocols were able to catch the affected cow and insure that no part of the animal entered the human food system or the animal feed system. Canada should not be punished for having an effective testing process that catches BSE-positive animals before they are released into the food system.
The limitations on beef trade from both the U.S. and Canada has had considerable effect on pork demand over the last year, and has contributed the profits of 2004. However, there are other issues to consider.
Canada is a major competitor for the United States in both beef and pork exports for a good reason. Their food system is similar to the U.S. food system in production practices, quality and food safety. We can argue all day over who has the better meat quality, but the reality is the similarities are more significant than the differences.
For that reason it’s critical to treat the Canadians fairly and let sound science and international trade rules be the deciding factors in the border issue. U.S. pork exports have risen every year since the mid-90s and show no signs of slowing down. That may have been helped somewhat by the North American beef situation, but U.S. pork exports were setting records before the BSE cases. U.S. pork is second to none in quality and the promotion of U.S. pork overseas is top-notch as well, so exports are likely to continue to increase, regardless of the beef export situation.
Having said that, U.S. pork and U.S. beef will benefit far more in the long-term from fair free-trade arrangements across the world than they would from short-term gains of a closed Canadian border. And that means letting science be the basis for all countries issues, not just issues that benefit the United States.
So far, USDA is to be commended for keeping a cautious eye out, while letting science and international trade be the basis for their decisions. Hopefully, one cow in Alberta won’t change that.