February 23, 2007

Minor when the USDA does it. Time to dismantle the USDA

How does the USDA expect to manage NAIS?

USDA: Mistakes tracing Canadian cattle are `minor'

By Stephen J. Hedges
Washington Bureau
Published February 23, 2007

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Department of Agriculture said Thursday that hundreds of cases of incomplete documentation of imported cattle from Canada, where mad cow concerns continue, involve "minor record-keeping" issues that do not endanger the safety of the U.S. food supply.

The cattle, many of which were missing ear tags for identification or whose health papers did not match their tags, have entered the United States from Canada in 2005 and 2006. They must be under 30 months old, which the USDA contends minimizes the risk that they have contracted cow disease.

"While we're still in the midst of the review, we're finding that the bulk of the violations appear to be minor record-keeping problems at the state level," said Andrea McNally of the agency's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. "We don't have a conclusion."

McNally said the USDA is still examining the documents, most of which consist of e-mails between Washington state agriculture officials and cattle feedlots and meatpacking companies. The e-mails show the industry representatives reporting about incomplete documentation of cattle from Canada.

The cattle ranchers who have been complaining about what they call lax enforcement of border controls by the USDA dismissed the department's explanation.

"I think this is passing the buck, ain't it?" said Lee Englehardt of the Cattle Producers of Washington, which filed a public disclosure request for the documents in 2006. "What's the point of an animal ID system if we can't keep the records straight on a select number of cattle from Canada?"

The documents, which were obtained by the Cattle Producers of Washington under the state's public disclosure law, suggest state and federal officials have had a difficult time tracking the entry of cattle from Canada.

Englehardt's group also contends that the mix-ups show that the USDA is incapable of administering a proposed federal cattle identification program to trace livestock.

McNally said the cattle trucks are checked at the border by a government veterinarian, and that so far the department's review has not found problems in that process. "If they don't meet our import requirements, they are denied entry," she said.

But some of the records, which Englehardt's group shared with the Tribune, suggest that some cattle came into the U.S. missing required ID ear tags and the appropriate health papers. In other cases, the ear tags did not match health certificates provided for the cattle.

One memo suggests that an entire truckload of cattle, usually about 60 cows, entered without required health certificates.

USDA figures show that about 182,000 Canadian cattle entered the U.S. for the year ending Feb. 17, 2007. The total U.S. cattle herd is about 95 million.

Consumer groups have raised questions about the USDA's decision to allow Canadian imports in the first place following the discovery of mad cow disease in Canada in May 2003. Mad cow in the U.S. was discovered near Yakima, Wash., in December 2003. The cow involved had been imported from Canada.

Canada announced its ninth confirmed case of mad cow two weeks ago. It discovered five cases in 2006 alone.

Mad cow, formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), attacks a cow's central nervous system. It is believed that humans can contract variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, a disorder that eats away at the brain, by consuming beef from cattle infected with BSE.

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