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Ag Sec'y Johanns Claims Canadian Safeguards Inadequate

WASHINGTON, DC - Newly appointed Secretary of Agriculture Michael Johanns charged that Canada has adequate safeguards to prevent any likely case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) from entering the United States.

Testifying Feb. 3 before the Senate Agriculture Committee on the effects of BSE, also known as mad cow disease, on U.S. imports and exports of cattle and beef, Johanns said Canada has in place the two major "firewalls" necessary to prevent the occurrence of BSE and its spread to the United States.

Those safeguards are a ban on specified risk materials (SRMs), bovine tissues known to be at high risk for carrying the agent of BSE, from entering the food supply and a ban on ruminant material in cattle feed, he said. Ruminant feed bans of such materials have been in effect in both the United States and Canada since 1997.

A ruminant is an animal with a complex digestive system. Ruminants include cattle, sheep, goats, deer, bison, elk and camels.

The measures, combined with U.S. domestic safeguards, provide protections to U.S. consumer and livestock health and justify a U.S. decision to allow resumption in early March of imports of live cattle younger than 30 months from Canada into the United States, Johanns said.

The rule adopted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in December 2004 is based on a thorough review of international science standards set by the International Office of Epizootics (OIE), or World Organization for Animal Health, the secretary said. That rule is scheduled to take effect Mar. 7.

The USDA rule also is based on reports from a team of U.S. animal and food safety scientists dispatched to Canada after a second and third case of BSE were discovered in the country in January in cows older than 30 months, Johanns said.

The secretary said he will continue to look at information being sent back to USDA from the technical team still in Canada. The team is expected to submit a final report on Canada's feed ban in mid-February and an epidemiological report by the end of March, he said.

The ban on live cattle imports from Canada went into effect after the country discovered its first case of BSE in May 2003.

With the lifting of the ban up, to 2 million head of live young cattle could come into the United States from Canada, accounting for a significant portion of business for U.S. meat packers, USDA Chief Economist Keith Collins told the committee.

The new rule requires permanent marking by ear tag or hide brand to identify an animal's origin, requiring the animals to be moved in sealed containers to feedlot or slaughter, and not allowing animals to move to more than one feedlot while in the United States, USDA said.

Johanns said that since USDA implemented an expanded BSE testing program in early 2004, more than 200,000 head of cattle have been tested at slaughter and all test results have been negative.

U.S. actions on BSE using science as a basis "are potentially precedent-setting and could affect international trade patterns for years to come," Johanns said.

"In the absence of that science, sanitary and phytosanitary restrictions will be used arbitrarily by many nations, without any basis of protecting human or animal health," he said.

On another matter related to U.S. beef trade, Johanns said he recently wrote to his counterpart in Japan about Japan's continuing ban on U.S. some beef imports despite the United States' having answered all of that country's technical questions about the safety of the U.S. food system.

In October 2004, Japan agreed to an interim program to allow imports of U.S. beef from cows younger than 20 months. Japan imposed its ban on U.S. beef following the discovery of a sole case of BSE in the United States in December 2003.

Before the ban, Japan imported $1.5 billion of U.S. beef products annually, Johanns said.

The United States is also in discussions with Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, China, Egypt and Russia about their resumption of U.S. beef imports, he said.

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