WASHINGTON – More than 19 months after a mad cow scare closed U.S. borders to Canadian cattle, the United States said Wednesday it will allow imports beginning in March.
The new policy will permit imports of cattle younger than 30 months and certain other animals and products from Canada, which the Agriculture Department said has effective measures to prevent and detect bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow (search) disease.
The department said the ruling, which will take effect March 7, came after determining Canada is a "minimal-risk region," the first country recognized as such.
"After conducting an extensive review, we are confident that imports of certain commodities from regions of minimal risk can occur with virtually no risk to human or animal health," Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman (search) said in a statement.
The cattle imports will be subject to certain restrictions, including ensuring they are slaughtered by the age of 30 months, which scientists say is too young to contract mad cow disease. The cattle must also be transported in sealed containers to a feedlot or slaughter, and they are not allowed to move to more than one U.S. feedlot.
Among other Canadian imports to be allowed are sheep and goats under 12 months, as well as meat and other products from those animals.
Canadian beef farmers and agriculture officials reacted positively to the new ruling.
"Certainly we're very pleased," said Elizabeth Whiting, a spokeswoman for the Canadian Agriculture Ministry (search). "It's something that farmers have been waiting for for a long time in Canada."
Live cattle shipments from Canada were banned in May 2003 after a case of mad cow disease was discovered in Alberta, Canada. A second case in December 2003 in Washington state was discovered in a Canadian-born cow.
The Agriculture Department first proposed establishing minimal-risk regions in November 2003, but the subsequent mad cow scare prompted the department to reevaluate the proposal.
Before the trade ban, the United States bought about 70 percent of Canada's live cattle exports.
"This has been a real dose of reality for us," said Arno Doerksen of the Alberta Beef Producers Association. "The Canadian industry needs to understand that we need to diversify our marketing opportunities."
The U.S. Agriculture Department estimates that in the first year after the ban ends, live cattle imports from Canada will reach an estimated 2 million head and lead to slight declines in cattle and beef prices, chief economist Keith Collins said. That's up from about 1.7 million head imported in 2002, an increase Collins attributed to the trade disruption and built-up inventories in Canada.