Year-end reports issued by the government this week put a capper on a very positive year for the U.S. economy.
*For starters, the largest drop in energy prices in 20 months helped fuel a sharp drop in wholesale prices in December. *Brisk sales for cars helped spark a jump in retail sales last month. In fact, annual retail sales were up by the largest amount in five years.
*But one seriously troublesome area of the economy is the trade deficit, which the government this week said hit an all-time high in November. The more than $60 billion monthly shortfall was brought on by increased imports in several areas, including farm products.
One category that saw a sharp increase in imports last year was Canadian hogs. A record 8.6 million head of hogs came across the border in 2004, a 16.2 percent increase over 2003.
Analysts believe the surge in swine imports from Canada has much to do with the ban on Canadian cattle. That ban is scheduled to be lifted in a couple of months, but it's a situation that remains shrouded in uncertainty.
The leaders of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and the U.S. Department of Agricultural remain confident that the most recent case of Mad Cow will not affect the opening of the border on March 7.
Ann Veneman, US Secretary of Agriculture: "And so I just want to reiterate that in terms of public health we believe that this situation does not change anything with regard to the safety of the food supply in this country or even in Canada."
This does not mean that the naysayers have changed their minds. The cattle producer's advocacy organization R-CALF filed a lawsuit this week to keep the border closed. Bill Bullard, R-CALF's CEO, is seeking the injunction because he feels the USDA is subjecting US consumers and cattle producers to great risk. He further believes this latest case is an indicator of how widespread Mad Cow is in the Canadian cattle herd. Bullard wants the border to remain closed until a scientific method can be established for determining if Canadian cattle are infected with Mad Cow.
Republican lawmakers also are beginning to join the slowly growing group of those who want the border to remain closed. Montana Republican Senator Conrad Burns wants to put the brakes on starting the flow of more Canadian beef to the U.S.. Burns expressed concern over what he called "flaws" in the rule that will allow the border to reopen. He says those flaws could harm not only Montana producers but consumer confidence at home and abroad.
In more middle ground is the American Farm Bureau. President Bob Stallman says his organization is all for getting things moving but not without a science based testing program to protect everyone.
The border closure has cost the Canadian beef industry at least three billion U.S. dollars. The Canadian Press is reporting that Alberta Canada's Premier believes it may be time for a large scale cull of older cows.