Truckloads of Canadian cattle could begin rolling into the United States next week after a federal appeals court ruling lifting a ban on the animals, Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns (search) said Friday.
"Our hope is that we're talking about days and not weeks," Johanns, on a trade mission in Madagascar, told reporters on a telephone call. "It could be as early as next week, but we do want to make sure everything's in place."
A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (search) on Thursday unanimously overturned a Montana judge who had kept the border closed with a ruling saying the U.S. beef industry faced "potentially catastrophic damages" and that American consumers faced "a genuine risk of death."
The United States banned Canadian cattle in May 2003, after Canada discovered its first case of mad cow disease. The U.S. was about to reopen the border in March, when U.S. District Judge Richard F. Cebull granted a request from ranchers to keep it closed.
Johanns said Friday that a paperwork hurdle is the only thing currently standing in the way. The Agriculture Department must issue procedures and update the list of beef products allowed to cross the border, then make sure state and federal authorities are using the same criteria for inspecting shipments.
The decision came a day after the Justice Department urged the appeals court in Seattle to reopen the border to imports. Justice Department attorney Mark Stern said lifting the ban is based on "good science" and would not result in the "infestation in American livestock."
During the hearing, the three justices suggested that U.S. District Judge Richard F. Cebull perhaps should have given deference to the USDA's decision.
Judge A. Wallace Tashima said the law "does invest the secretary of agriculture with a certain amount of discretion." Judge Connie Callahan agreed, saying the USDA is "entitled to some deference. It's their whole job to keep up with the science to make those decisions."
The dispute has pitted ranchers — whose profits have improved slightly without Canadian competition — against feedlots and packers that have fewer cows to feed and slaughter without Canadian supplies.
"This is a tremendous victory for the northwest beef industry," said Cody Easterday, who runs an 18,000-head feedlot in Pasco, Wash. "It's basically going to protect our future for many families that depend on the beef industry for their livelihood."
American Meat Institute (search) president J. Patrick Boyle said the ruling is also a victory for American consumers who were paying $1.85 a pound for ground beef before the border closed and are paying about $2.55 today.
Bill Bullard, executive director of the Ranchers Cattlemen Action Legal Fund (search), which brought the suit on behalf of U.S. ranchers, said the decision imperils U.S. beef.
"USDA did not provide significant justification for overturning a long-standing policy that protected both the U.S. cattle herd and U.S. consumers from the introduction" of mad cow disease, he said.
Cebull issued his order blocking the importation of cattle months before a scheduled trial which pits the cattlemen's science against the USDA's. A trial on those competing views is scheduled July 27 before Cebull.
But with Thursday's decision, the appeals panel is not likely to allow Cebull to issue another injunction.
Mad cow disease is the common name for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (search), or BSE. People who eat meat tainted with BSE can contract a degenerative, fatal brain disorder called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (search), or vCJD. More than 150 people died from it following a 1986 outbreak in the United Kingdom.