The economic news of the week was thin but reasonably optimistic.
For starters, *a new survey by the private research group known as the Conference Board shows consumer confidence up sharply in December. *Sales in November of previously owned homes posted their best month on record. *And the number of new people signing up for jobless benefits dropped last week, a sign the job market is stabilizing.
All of that makes for a promising start to 2005. But in farm country late this week, there are new concerns over the possible discovery of another case of Mad Cow disease in Canada ... and the timing couldn't have been stranger.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency released few details about the case other than to say the suspect animal was a 10-year-old dairy cow. The preliminary tests were completed on Wednesday after the cow was identified as a "downer" -- an animal unable to walk.
While the tests are not definitive, Canadian officials admit that numerous screenings have yielded positive results.
The discovery smacks of irony as much as it does danger. Just 24 hours before the revelation, the U.S. submitted a federal rule that would re-open the border to Canadian cattle. USDA's final review of the rule makes Canada the first country recognized as a minimal-risk region for Mad Cow disease.
Though Congress still has 60 days to consider the rule, Canadian officials said they are hopeful the border will re-open as scheduled since the latest Mad Cow finding still falls within U.S. safety guidelines.
The border was closed 19 months ago when a cow in northern Alberta tested positive for Mad Cow disease. Prior to the discovery, Canada exported 1.6 million head of cattle to the U.S. in 2002 ... and 491,000 head through May of 2003.
The border closing impacted cattle producers on both sides of the border. According to the American Meat Institute, the ban has tightened U.S. lean beef supplies ... and has driven up wholesale and retail prices for ground beef. AMI also says the loss of cattle imports from Canada has contributed to this year's reduced slaughter totals, which as of last week stood at 91.6 percent of a year ago.