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Minister sees mad cow deal closer

Bob Speller meets his U.S., Mexican counterparts today in bid to open the border.
BETH GORHAM, CP   2004-01-16 03:36:58  

WASHINGTON -- Agriculture Minister Bob Speller says he expects to find out today how close U.S. officials are to agreeing to lift their ban on Canadian cattle. But Speller, who's scheduled to meet with both his American and Mexican counterparts, doesn't expect any exact date to emerge from the talks.

"Hopefully what I'll get out of the meeting is a commitment to move forward on a process toward opening the border," said Speller.

"We've moved lockstep on the science . . . we need that border open."

The Canada-U.S. cattle market is highly integrated, with about seven million animals crossing the border in the last five years.

Speller, who just returned from Japan and South Korea, said it's hard to sell them on taking Canadian beef products when Canada and the U.S. aren't buying each other's cattle.

Japan is willing to keep discussing ways of satisfying safety concerns that prompted that country to ban Canadian products last May after an Alberta beef cow tested positive for mad cow disease.

Japan tests every slaughtered animal for the disease. Officials there are not expecting North America to do the same, said Speller, but want to see similar and equivalent standards that retain consumer confidence.

While the U.S. initially banned all Canadian products, it started allowing trade in some beef from younger cattle in September.

In December, a Washington state Holstein was found to have mad cow. It was traced back to its birth farm in Alberta.

The Canadian industry, already reeling from its own case, with about $1.9 billion in losses, was looking at more pain.

The two countries began to co-ordinate more closely on safety issues.

Late last month, the U.S. said it would ban all sick cattle from the food chain, as well as tissues at higher risk of carrying the protein thought to cause the disease.

American officials also promised to increase the number of cattle they test for mad cow from the current 20,000 a year.

Canada had already banned brain and spinal tissues from meat products and has agreed not to export to the U.S. any meat from cows too sick to stand or walk.

Ottawa plans to spend $92 million over the next five years to gradually increase the number of slaughtered cattle tested for the disease from 5,500 to 30,000 a year.

The last major safety area that needs co-ordinated effort, said Speller, is extending a ban on using cattle tissue in feed.

Canada and the U.S. banned such tissue from cattle feed in August 1997, shortly after both mad cow animals were born. Now they are considering a ban on the tissues in feed for other livestock such pigs and sheep.

U.S. officials have said they won't make a decision on the border until their investigation is complete. They are still searching for most of the other 81 animals that came from the same Alberta herd as the sick Holstein.

But Speller said there's no need to wait because the two countries have co-ordinated their response.

"Within North America, we have the science. We have very similar, if not exact, ways of dealing with that."

The longer the border stays closed, the harder it will get to reopen it during a U.S. election year, added Alliance MP Monte Solberg, who has been travelling with Speller.

While Canada has support from some high-profile U.S. beef groups, politicians from Midwest beef states and some consumer and industry groups are urging the U.S. government to keep the border shut.

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