WASHINGTON -- More than two years after banning Canadian cattle because of a case of mad cow disease, the United States reopened its border to a few truckloads of young, live cattle from Canada last week.
The action came shortly after a panel of three judges of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a Montana judge's decision that had kept the border closed. U.S. and Canadian officials worked swiftly to put certification and inspection procedures in place.
The decision allows cattle younger than 30 months old enter the states, providing the animals meet certain risk criteria. An earlier decision had reopened the U.S. border to boneless beef from young Canadian cattle.
The full impact of last week's development could not be assessed immediately, but some industry observers expect beef prices to fall, though not immediately.
"I think the expectation is prices will soften a little bit," said Ken Chapin, director of meat and seafood for Yoke's Foods, a Spokane, Wash.-based chain of 12 stores. "It'll take a little bit of time to realign the business. I don't know that we'd see a whole lot of softening of prices until September."
The development was welcome news to the hard-hit American meatpacking industry. Nearly 8,000 meatpacking jobs were eliminated, plants were shut down permanently and others temporarily when Canadian cattle processing work dried up, said J. Patrick Boyle, president and chief executive officer of the American Meat Institute, a trade group representing processors.
"Live Canadian cattle once again coming into the United States is a victory of science over economic isolationism and should signal to the world that the North American beef market is back open for business," Boyle said.
Beef-industry observers hope the action sends the rest of the world a reassuring message about the safety of North American beef. Reopening foreign beef markets has been a priority for the Bush administration. U.S. officials have been working to restore beef trade with Japan, South Korea, Mexico and other countries that were major buyers of American beef before a case of mad cow disease turned up in Washington state in December 2003.
"We will push hard to get our markets back open based on this decision," said Kim Essex, spokeswoman for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, Denver. "There's a lot of product in the U.S. that Americans don't eat. Short ribs, liver, tongue. Opening the export markets for U.S. [beef products] will have a distinct impact.
"The reasons we kept the border closed were not based on science. We've established a trade standard based on science."
Meanwhile, a hearing set for July 27 to consider a permanent injunction against imports of Canadian cattle and beef was postponed by U.S. District Court Judge Richard Cebull, pending review of a written opinion from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals' three judges who reversed the preliminary injunction. The request for a permanent injunction came from R-CALF United Stockgrowers of America, a ranchers group that has led the fight to keep Canadian beef and cattle out of the states. Members of R-CALF argue Canadian beef presents a risk to human health as well as American cattlemen's herds.
To date, three cases of mad cow disease have turned up in Canada along with two others in the United States. One of the U.S. cows was born in Canada, and the other was from Texas.