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More Mad Cow

LEDUC, Alta. - With livestock haulers counting down the days to the anticipated re-opening of the U.S. border to Canadian cattle, the entire industry was dealt another crushing blow. It came in the fo...

LEDUC, Alta. – With livestock haulers counting down the days to the anticipated re-opening of the U.S. border to Canadian cattle, the entire industry was dealt another crushing blow. It came in the form of another confirmed case of mad cow disease – this time in Washington State.

Immediately upon hearing of the incident Dec. 23, Canadian cattle industry officials called upon the government not to overreact. While Canada closed its border to live U.S. cattle, the rest of the world went further. Japan, Singapore, Australia and a host of other countries immediately banned all U.S. beef products.

But just days after the infection was identified, the worst case scenario for Canadian cattle producers and livestock haulers was realized as U.S. officials said the cow’s origin was traced back to an Alberta farm.

At first, stunned Canadian officials accused the U.S. of being too hasty in announcing the cow’s origin. Then, on Jan. 6, it was confirmed the Holstein cow was, in fact, born on a Leduc, Alta.-area farm.

Almost immediately, the U.S. postponed a decision to re-open its border to Canadian cattle until the latest investigation was completed. It was widely hoped that the U.S. would begin accepting live Canadian cattle by early 2004, but those hopes appear to have been dashed by this latest setback.

“We have decided that we will not take any action at this point on that proposed rule (to re-open the border to live Canadian cattle under 30 months of age),” said Ron DeHaven, chief veterinarian with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in a briefing with reporters.

“There’s been no limit in terms of the options that might be considered.”

Possible options could include drafting an entirely new proposal or re-opening the public consultation process that wrapped up just one day before confirmation that the cow had Canadian roots.

Tom Daschle, a senate minority leader from South Dakota, called on the U.S. Department of Agriculture to immediately suspend the proposed rule to allow the importing of Canadian cattle, and also urged decision-makers to retract their decision to allow muscle cuts from young Canadian cattle.

“Having the border open for us now is pie in the sky – we’ve been waiting since last May,” Alberta cattle buyer Graham Friesen told local media.

“Who says they’re ever going to open the border? Realistically, we need to work with what the market is going to be if the market doesn’t open.”

The Canadian cattle industry is still reeling from the fallout of a single case of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) detected in Alberta in May. Fallout from the incident has been pegged at more than $1.9 billion.

While producers have bore the brunt of that cost, livestock haulers have also suffered huge losses.

“In the livestock trucking end of the business, not to take anything away from the producers, but we were one of the first to be effected when the border was closed originally,” said Greg Hutton of Lloyd Hutton Transport, an Ontario-based livestock hauling company.

“There were trucks on the way to the border that had to be turned away so we started to feel the pinch right away.”

It’s not yet clear how badly the U.S. will be hit by the latest discovery, but since it only exports 10 per cent of its beef (Canada exports 40 per cent), the economic repercussions may be less severe south of the border.

Even a long-standing ban on U.S. beef by countries around the world may be survivable as the void caused by the ban on Canadian imports can be filled by the domestic production of beef in the U.S. – meat that was formerly destined for export.

“All of Canada’s exports to the U.S. accounted for eight per cent of U.S. consumption,” Alberta Motor Transport Association (AMTA ) officials pointed out. “Obviously if the exports are shut down, that will have to enter the domestic supply. The export volume (10 per cent) will simply replace the former Canadian imports (eight per cent).”

In a statement issued just days before the Washington State cow was confirmed to have been born in Alberta, the AMTA prophesized that: “If it is proven the BSE case originated in Canada there will be tremendous political pressure to keep out any Canadian live animals. Politicians will want to appear to be taking all necessary steps to keep the American food supply safe. There will be a lot of negative press if they open the border to live Canadian cattle after having their only case of BSE proven to come from Canada…If the animal is of Canadian origin we can look at no exports of live animals for an extended period.”

And that’s exactly what Hutton, also chairman of the Ontario Livestock Carriers Coalition, is afraid of.

“Everybody is struggling just to see what direction they can head,” he said. “We’re basically at a standstill just like this past summer when we found it in Alberta ourselves.”

Livestock carriers who depend on cross-border routes have taken a number of approaches to dealing with the crisis. Some have parked their trucks and left the business altogether while others have abandoned their cattleliners in favour of dry vans or flatdecks.

“Everybody’s just trying to do what they can to survive,” said Hutton. His company, for instance, has introduced rotating vacation time for drivers “just to basically get everybody some work but also to keep everybody around as well.”

That is the biggest challenge facing livestock carriers, Hutton said. Given all the uncertainty, not many drivers can afford to hang around waiting for the border to re-open.

“We’ve lost quite a few trained drivers and that’s going to be tough down the road, to replace the safe, conscientious drivers that have the knowledge and capability of handling livestock,” he said.

“They’re a rare breed to find and when you’ve got them, you really don’t want to lose them. But they have payments to make and they can only hang on for so long. The longer it takes to get this border re-opened, the more we’re going to lose, but we really need the infrastructure to stay together to handle the movements when things do return to normal.”

Just when things will return to normal remains to be seen, but nearly every drop of optimism has been drained from this beleaguered industry.

“We’re kind of in awe here, we just get bad news after bad news with no daylight at the end of the tunnel,” Hutton lamented.

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