July 26, 2008, 7:30PM
Canadian cattle were not properly tracked, audit finds
U.S. agency can't say how many of 1.1 million cattle escaped scrutiny

By STEPHEN J. HEDGES

Source of Article: http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/nation/5908457.html

 


CWASHINGTON 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.

The inspector general's 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 1.1 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, or APHIS, for failing to properly check records as the cattle crossed the Canadian border.

Cows still turning up mad

Mad cow, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), is a fatal disease that attacks a cow's nervous system. It also can cause a variant in humans that is always 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. Just last month Canada discovered its 13th BSE case.

In 2005, the Agriculture Department began to allow imports of Canadian cattle, which are cheaper than U.S. cattle. There were import restrictions, though. 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 2007, the department also began to allow older cattle, arguing that no new mad cow cases have been discovered in the U.S. 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 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."

Stop importing?

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 USDA 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."

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