Cattlemen Have Beef With USDA Signals on Canadian Imports
By Cindy Skrzycki
Tuesday, May 11, 2004; Page E01
Let's just say the regulators at the Department of Agriculture stepped in some cow dung.
Last week, the Bush administration admitted that it did not follow regulatory procedure in deciding what Canadian beef products can come into the country legally. This caused three problems.
It called public attention to a highly contentious issue. The administration's effort to normalize trade relations in Canadian beef may be sidetracked. And the final rule that the USDA currently is working on to expand beef imports from Canada will be scrutinized even more closely by opponents in the wake of the infection called mad cow disease being discovered in Canada and the United States.
The issue turned out to be one that shed light on how regulators have used rulemaking -- or in this case, avoided rulemaking -- to manage the political and food safety ramifications of mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), in this country.
If it were not for the settlement that the USDA entered into last week with a group of western cattlemen, attorneys for the government would have been in court in Billings, Mont., today, explaining how regulators relaxed restrictions on Canadian imports without following rulemaking protocol, or making any public announcement.
At issue was a memo that appeared on the Web site of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service on April 19, along with a list of "low-risk Canadian products" that would be allowed into the country as long as "risk materials," such as the spinal cords and brains, were removed. On that list were all kinds of cuts and parts of Canadian bovines, including ground beef.
By April 22, R-CALF USA, which stands for Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America, were in court asking to have the imports shut off. They alleged violations of the Administrative Procedure Act, which requires public notice and comment on regulatory changes, in seeking to review the decision.
U.S. District Judge Richard F. Cebull, on April 26, slapped a temporary restraining order on the government, effectively stopping any of the products on the list from coming into the country. He said the action the agency took had the force of a final rule without the notice-and-comment the law requires.
"It is troubling to the Court how USDA could believe it is appropriate procedure to authorize all imports of bovine meat products from Canada, through the April 19 memorandum, at the very same time when USDA is in the middle of a rulemaking to determine whether to take such a step," said the judge's opinion.
That rulemaking is one the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service at the USDA proposed last November to add Canada to the list of countries that presented a low risk of introducing the disease into the United States. More than 3,000 organizations and individuals expressed their views before the comment period ended April 7. It was expected the final rule would be issued soon, beginning normalization of trade in beef with Canada.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
An illustration on the front of the May 11 Business section depicted an outdated version of the Canadian national flag. It should have shown a flag bearing a red maple leaf on a white field, with red bands on either side.
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