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What's a Canadian Cow? Trade Blurred Distinctions

January 6, 2004 The New York Times By SARAH KERSHAW and BERNARD SIMON
From the moment the news filtered out that the Holstein with the first case of mad cow disease in the United States was believed to have been born in Canada, the nation's cattle industry, from Washington, D.C., to the far reaches of the Northwest, was abuzz with relief.

The National Cattlemen's Beef Association issued a news release urging trading partners to "reopen their borders to U.S. beef exports" in light of information linking the diseased cow to Alberta, Canada. On the West Coast, where imports of live Canadian cattle were heaviest until last May, when trading was halted after Canada reported its first case of mad cow disease, farmers and industry officials held teleconferences and meetings, hopeful that the Canada link meant the United States could maintain its mad-cow-free status.

The United States' ability to maintain that status remains to be seen. But the industry's effort to distinguish American cattle from Canadian cattle has drawn criticism from Canadian ranchers and cattle industry officials, who say the United States has suddenly portrayed mad cow disease as a Canadian problem. Heavy trading of dairy, beef and breeding cattle and feed between the two countries until eight months ago, they say, created a deeply integrated cattle market.

"There is going to be heated debate on whether mad cow disease is here," said Jay Gordon, executive director of the Washington Dairy Federation, a trade association in the state where the country's first case of mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, was found.

"If an animal is not born in the country, you can argue that you have your B.S.E.-free status," Mr. Gordon said. "If that does shake out and become the case, with any luck at all, we can quickly and fairly rapidly get all the material necessary to prove our case."

Clint Peck, a senior editor at Beef Magazine, an American trade publication, was a guest on a Canadian radio show last week and the host asked him, "How mad are U.S. cattlemen at Canada?"

Mr. Peck recalled telling the host: "When it comes to the North American cattle business, the hole isn't in your side of the boat. We're pretty much in this ballgame together."

But that is not the message the American beef and dairy industry would like to send to consumers or to the dozens of nations that have banned American beef imports.

Rick McRonald, executive director of the Canadian Livestock Genetics Association, which represents exporters of breeding animals, said there were 300,000 to 400,000 Canadian cattle in American cattle herds.

And Ryan Dykstra, a dairy farmer near Moncton, New Brunswick, who sold cattle to American farmers regularly before the trade ban, said, "Cattle have been flowing back and forth for years."

Mr. Dykstra said he was frustrated by what appeared to be an eagerness to portray mad cow disease as a Canadian problem. "If the Americans don't like something, they will change their laws to suit their needs," he said.

In 2002, Canada sent 1.2 million live cattle to the United States, the Canadian government said, but all imports were halted when Canada discovered its first case of mad cow disease, in a black Angus.

Until the trade ban, the scene at Walker Dairy Sales in southwestern Ontario was typical for many Canadian cattle auction yards: On the last Friday of every month, about 100 buyers showed up to bid on cattle, but American buyers, numbering only about a half-dozen, would leave with the most, frequently buying a trailer-load of 35 cows each.

John Walker, the auction yard owner, said he could not recall a more difficult time for Canadian dairy farmers since he began selling cows 40 years ago.

On the other side of the border, cow auctioneers and dairy farmers, particularly on the West Coast, said Canadian cattle were highly desirable because of their quality and the favorable exchange rate. So many cattle were imported into Washington State, dairymen and auctioneers said, that farmers rarely distinguished between cows from the two countries. "One Holstein looked like another," said Ronald Mariotti, owner of a livestock auction yard in Enumclaw, Wash.

The news that the diseased cow in Washington was believed to have been born in Canada came as American officials were moving toward reopening the border to imports of Canadian cattle younger than 30 months, those considered at low risk for mad cow disease. The Department of Agriculture, which proposed resuming the imports, has now indicated it may reconsider.

The ban on exports of live cattle has not only financially pinched Canadian farmers, but has also, some said, left them feeling abandoned by their neighbor.

A columnist for The Montreal Gazette, Bill Brownstein, wrote last week about issues that have divided the United States and Canada, including the war in Iraq, prescription drugs, the environment and wheat and lumber subsidies.

"And now it appears that their mad cow came from Canada," Mr. Brownstein wrote. "There is no respite. Or respect. We have become their whipping-boy, their 98-pound weakling." But, he continued, "We are entirely blameless in the matter of Michael Jackson."

   
         

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