Playing Politics With Mad Cows

The Senate Agriculture Committee on Thursday unanimously approved the nomination of Nebraska Governor Mike Johanns as U.S. agriculture secretary, clearing the way for his likely confirmation by the full Senate. Committee members spent little time discussing Johanns' qualifications for the job and instead spent the majority of the hearing airing renewed concerns about the impact of mad cow disease on the U.S. beef industry.

The decision last week by the Bush administration to lift the 19-month ban on Canadian beef imports drew particular scrutiny from members on both sides of the aisle. The day after announcing the decision Canadian officials confirmed the discovery of a second native case of mad cow disease – the ban was put in place in May 2003 when Canada reported its first case of the disease.

"Ranchers across the country are concerned, as they should be," said Georgia Republican Saxby Chambliss, the incoming chair of the committee.

Democrats highlighted fresh evidence that suggests the Canadian feed ban is far from rigorous and is routinely allowing animal proteins into cattle feed.

Cattle are naturally vegetarian, but additives made from rendered animal byproducts can be part of their feed in commercial operations. As of 1997, by law, U.S. cattle cannot be fed byproducts from other ruminant animals such as other cattle, sheep or goats, as they may carry the misshapen proteins called prions that cause mad cow disease.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has issued a series of import alerts, Canadian regulators have discovered problems with 10 feed mills, and more than 60 percent of recently tested samples of vegetarian animal feed manufactured in Canada contained "undeclared animal materials."

"That raises an enormous red flag for us in respect to what Canada is doing," said Senator Kent Conrad, a North Dakota Democrat. "I am far from convinced that Canada is effectively enforcing its own regulations."

Johanns, the son of an Iowa dairy farmer, declined to say if he would reconsider the decision to lift the Canadian ban, which will become effective March 7.

"As a nominee, I would not indicate any kind of decision to postpone," the 54-year-old Johanns told the committee. Johanns said he would focus on animal and food safety and ensure "we are doing the right things in those areas in terms of this rule and in terms of Canada."

Mad cow disease has emerged as a tricky, costly problem for the U.S. beef industry since it was first found in the United States in December 2003.

The disease, officially known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), spreads from one animal to another by consumption of feed that has been contaminated by protein – such as blood or meat meal – from an infected animal. Humans come down with a parallel fatal brain wasting disease, variant Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease, by consuming beef from BSE-infected cattle.

The U.S. and Canadian governments banned the use of ruminant remains in feed for cattle, goats and sheep in August 1997.

In the wake of the December 2003 discovery that a U.S. cow, originally imported from Canada, was stricken with the disease, officials have struggled to assure some trading partners that the nation's testing and oversight are adequate.

At the top of the list is Japan, which imported more U.S. beef in 2003 – some $1.3 billion worth – than any other nation.

"We have got to get moving on this," said Senator Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat. Baucus said the issue is largely one of trade politics, not food safety, and criticized outgoing Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman for not pressing the issue with the White House.

"This has to be bumped up to the presidential level," Baucus said. "Otherwise it is just going to be a lot of talk and not a lot is going to happen."

Although the U.S agriculture officials predict the nation's beef exports will increase 35 percent this year, lawmakers note this is below historical levels and contend that foreign bans on U.S. beef are harming the industry. Tyson Foods, the world's largest supplier of chicken, beef and pork, announced Thursday that it would temporarily cut operations at four beef plants because of low demand and tight cattle supplies.

"This is a real indication that the rubber has hit the road," said Senator Blanche Lincoln, an Arkansas Democrat. "We have to move these discussions to another level – we are not getting anywhere in the current approach we are taking."

Johanns said reopening the Japanese market would be "priority number one" once he takes charge of the department.

"I will do everything I can to move aggressively on this," he said. "Trade is a very, very significant issue for me. Nothing more frustrating than working through a process that is not based on good science, but that is based on politics."

Johanns said increased testing of U.S. cattle could prompt a reversal of a ban on downer cattle, which are animals too sick or injured to walk.

"I supported Ann Veneman when she announced that – just to assure the public that we were aggressively on top of this issue," Johanns told the committee. "But gosh the testing that has been done and our animals have done well."

U.S. regulators have tested some 165,000 cattle over the past year for BSE, Johanns said, and the goal is "to test 250,000 or so and take a look at how we are doing."

"We have a body of information we did not have before," he said.

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