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USDA Officials Testify to Senate Ag Committee

posted on February 4, 2005

Hello, I'm Mark Pearson.

The talk of the nation this week was the president's State of the Union address, a message that triggered instant partisan division.

*In delivering his speech to a joint session of Congress, the president challenged lawmakers to act on a diverse legislative agenda. Central to that challenge is a controversial call to revamp Social Security by allowing Americans to use personal investment accounts to pad retirement benefits.

The president's agenda for farm country, though not mentioned in his speech, also may ruffle some feathers. The Monday release of his fiscal 2006 budget likely will propose cuts in farm program spending of $15 billion over 10 years. Opponents say such a plan amounts to a unilateral slashing of U.S. farm income in the midst of delicate talks on global farm trade.

To be sure, the administration is embroiled in farm trade talk on a number of touchy issues. Topping that list are negotiations on the beef trade ... a topic that this week also had the attention of Congress.

USDA Officials Testify to Senate Ag Committee U.S. Department of Agriculture officials testified to the Senate Agriculture Committee this week on the Bush Administration's efforts to prevent the spread of mad-cow disease.

With the U.S. scheduled to lift its ban on Canadian cattle and beef products on March 7th, lawmakers were looking for assurances that domestic food safety would not be compromised. While lifting the ban seemed reasonable last fall, it has proven to be controversial since Canada confirmed not one, but two, cases of BSE in the past month.

Ranking Committee Member, Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa took issue with USDA's deviation from international guidelines in determining Canada's status as being "minimal risk" for BSE. The World Organization for Animal Health, known by it's French acronym, O.I.E. requires that a ruminant-to-ruminant feed ban be in place for eight years before the country's beef is considered "minimal risk."

Senator Harkin, D - Iowa: Are you here today to tell us that the OIE standards are not science-based?"

Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns: "No."

Senator Harkin, D - Iowa: "Then if they're science-based, why have we departed from them?"

Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns: "Your observation is correct in terms of the feed ban. We are a few months short. I think it would be eight years in August if I'm not mistaken."

The U.S. banned Canadian cattle in May of 2003 in the wake of Canada's first confirmed case of mad-cow disease. Now, while some cattle producers and politicians would like to see the deal move forward, others aren't so sure how opening the border to Canadian cattle will affect ongoing trade relations with Japan.

In the wake of America's first -- and to date, only confirmed case of mad cow disease -- late in 2003, Japan closed its ports to U.S. beef. While exports account for only about 10 percent of the 35 million head of U.S. cattle slaughtered annually, the economic impact was a loss of nearly $4 billion in sales overnight.

Japan had been America's most lucrative beef export market prior to the ban and newly confirmed Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns claims restoring trade with the Japanese is his top priority.

USDA claims the American beef industry will suffer only a "moderate" economic impact due to opening the border to Canadian imports. But Senator Mark Dayton of Minnesota took exception with that conclusion.

Sen. Mark Dayton, D - Minnesota: Your economic science is out of Mad magazine. The large meatpackers are going to shift their processing plants to Canada, where they can literally make a killing. And those American jobs will be lost. Those American workers... our taxpayers... our citizens and constituents and their families are going to be devastated by those closings and loss of jobs and you call that a 'moderate impact.' And I find that ignorant and offensive. To sit here in suits with your jobs protected, your salaries secure and call those people who are going to lose their jobs a 'moderate impact.' It's wrong."

Tags: agriculture animals beef Congress diseases food safety government livestock Mad Cow meat news USDA