Audit says USDA lost track of imported cattle

Canada has reported 13 cases of mad cow

(Chicago Tribune, IL)

By Stephen J. Hedges


Despite persistent fears of mad cow disease in Canadian beef, the Department of Agriculture has failed to properly track hundreds of Canadian cattle coming into the United States, the department's inspector general has concluded.

An audit, completed in March but only recently made public, said that some of the imported cattle did not have proper identification or health records despite federal regulations requiring them.

The audit did not say how many cattle were improperly brought into the U.S. and inspector general spokesman Paul Feeney said auditors are not sure of that number. The report said that a lack of records meant that "it cannot be determined" whether shipments other than those discovered "have bypassed inspection or whether this is a systemic problem."

About 1 million cattle were imported into the U.S. from Canada in the fiscal year ending in September 2006, the period covered by the audit.

The audit mainly faulted Agriculture's Animal Plant Health Inspection Service for failing to properly check records as the cattle crossed the Canadian border.

"APHIS does not adequately track live animal imports and, if problems are detected, does not collectively analyze import violations," the report said. "Additional controls are needed at northern ports-of-entry to obtain stronger assurance that all animal shipments are inspected."

Mad cow, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, is a disease that attacks a cow's nervous system. Medical researchers also believe that humans who eat meat infected with BSE can contract a variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, which is fatal.

When mad cow was first discovered in Canada in 2003, the USDA cut off all Canadian cattle imports, as did many other countries.

But despite years of precautions, Canada continues to discover cases in which cows have BSE. In June, Canada discovered its 13th BSE case.

The U.S. also discovered a case of mad cow in late 2003. It was found in a Washington state dairy cow that had been imported from Canada. Two more U.S. cases of the disease have since been confirmed one Texas-bred cow and one in Alabama whose origin is not known.

The American beef industry also suffered a financial setback after many countries banned U.S. beef.

The USDA began testing suspect cattle in 2004, and about 400,000 cattle a year were tested. But in 2006 top USDA officials argued that the risk of mad cow disease was minimal, and testing was scaled back to about 40,000 head a year. About 97 million head of cattle are in the U.S.

In 2005, the Agriculture Department began to allow imports of Canadian cattle, which are cheaper than U.S. cattle, in part because so many countries prohibited importing Canadian beef.

There were import restrictions, though. The USDA first allowed only Canadian cattle younger than 30 months old, since mad cow is believed to fully afflict only older cattle.

But in November the department also began to allow older cattle, arguing that no new mad cow cases have been discovered in the U.S. since 2006 and that safeguards were in place to minimize the risk.

Karen Eggert, an APHIS spokeswoman, said the audit covered a period in 2006, before older cattle were allowed into the U.S. She also said the agency has adhered strictly to a rule adopted in December 2004 that dictates strict conditions for the import of Canadian cattle.

Those conditions include health and identification procedures, sealed trucks, permanent markings on cattle and restrictions on their movement once in the U.S.

Eggert said that her agency disagrees with some of the audit's findings but that "other recommendations have provided us with sound ideas."

In one instance, the audit concluded, 211 cattle entered the U.S. without proper identification or health records.

In another, auditors found that 161 "animal shipments gained unauthorized entry into the United States during [fiscal years] 2005 and 2006." A typical cattle shipment contains about 60 animals.

The audit also found that 436 cattle and 9,000 hogs were sent to the U.S. for slaughter, but that their slaughter could not be verified.

Critics of the Agriculture Department's mad cow policies said the audit bolsters their call to ban imports. A cattle producers group, R-Calf USA, sued the agency over the rule that allows older cattle from Canada into the U.S. In a partial victory, a federal judge in South Dakota on July 3 ordered the agency to reconsider that rule.

R-Calf USA Chief Executive Bill Bullard said the audit is proof the USDA can't regulate the cross-border cattle trade.

"We know that Canada has an ongoing disease problem," Bullard said. "These rules that recently relaxed our import restrictions should be reversed until the agency can demonstrate that it has the capacity and the will to carry out its congressional mandate to protect consumers and the cattle producers against the introduction of disease." 7-23-08



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