Nearly four years after a Canadian-born cow turned up in the Yakima Valley with mad-cow disease, the federal government plans to loosen...

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Nearly four years after a Canadian-born cow turned up in the Yakima Valley with mad-cow disease, the federal government plans to loosen restrictions on imports of beef across the Canadian border.

The Department of Agriculture maintains that the risk of importing another infected cow into the United States is extremely small. But the plan is continuing to meet loud protest from Washington state ranchers and national consumer advocates.

Both are suing to block the move and have asked a judge to halt the Nov. 19 reopening, saying the government still has not kept its promises to ensure that the disease is kept out of the U.S. meat supply.

“When the first mad cow hit us from Canada, within 30 days we lost all of our foreign exports of beef. It was huge,” said Rod Haeberle, a rancher who raises beef cattle in Okanogan County about 50 miles from the border.

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“I know people say, ‘I don’t see what the big deal is with Canada,’ but look at what one cow did.”

The Department of Agriculture (USDA) says that beginning Monday, it will once again allow live cattle 30 months of age and older — considered to have the highest risk of infection with mad cow disease — to be imported from Canada. It would be the first time since December 2003, when the slaughtered cow from Mabton, Yakima County, was found to have the brain-wasting disease.

That animal, the first ever found with the disease in the U.S., was destroyed and no other cattle or humans were known to be infected by its meat. But it caused other countries to halt the purchase of U.S. beef, and set off a nationwide debate about the government’s duty to protect the nation’s meat supply from the disease.

Mad-cow disease, clinically known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, is a chronic, degenerative disease of the brain and spinal cord in cattle. Cattle get the disease by eating contaminated meat and bone meal in cattle feed. A variant of the disease, called Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, is transmitted to humans by eating tainted meat. The disease is always fatal in both cattle and humans, and there is no known preventive or cure.

After the Mabton cow was found in 2003, the USDA promised to set up a system to trace tainted meat back to the farm. And it promised to clamp down on feed regulations to prevent the disease’s spread. But consumer groups have been complaining for years that the government hasn’t done most of those things.

The promised tracking system never materialized. And regulations intended to keep the risky meat products out of animal feed — the primary pathway believed to spread the disease from animal to animal — remain among the weakest in the world. The USDA also scaled back what was initially billed as a large-scale mad-cow testing program. The region’s only mad-cow testing lab was closed last March.

Further, country-of-origin labeling rules adopted in 2002 won’t be implemented until September 2008.

“They left loopholes, they didn’t follow through, and our firewalls are not as tight as they should be,” said Chris Waldrop, director of the Food Policy Institute of the Consumer Federation of America, which has joined with 10 other plaintiffs in suing the USDA in U.S. District Court in South Dakota.

The plaintiffs are hoping for an injunction this week. Meanwhile, cattlemen and consumer groups are also lobbying Congress to block the opening of the border to the import of older animals.

R-CALF USA, a group of cattle producers based in Billings, Mont., and a plaintiff in the suit, points out that since 2003, 10 more cows in Canada have been found with the disease. “The only difference today is the Canadian problem is now known to be worse than what was originally predicted,” said Bill Bullock, CEO for the organization.

Canada enacted a ban on feeding of ruminant protein to other ruminants — animals that chew a cud — in 1997 to block the spread of mad cow. But it was still allowed in pig and poultry and pet foods, and mad cow has continued to turn up in Canadian cattle.

The USDA counters that mad-cow disease remains very rare. Only two of 759,000 cattle tested under a federal surveillance program between 2004 and 2006 were found to have the disease.

The government also points out that Canada tightened its rules on cattle feed last summer, and the USDA predicts that will largely eliminate the problem, as it has in Europe.

The USDA also conducted a peer-reviewed study earlier this year that found the risk of importing an infected cow from Canada is negligible, and the risk of a human getting the disease would be even slimmer, said Karen Eggert, a department spokeswoman.

“Canada has cases of BSE, but fair and safe trade can occur,” Eggert said.

In the study, the USDA determined that even in a worst-case scenario, during 20 years only 19 infected animals would be imported to the U.S. from Canada. That would lead to two cases of secondary spread of the disease to U.S. cattle. But because most cattle are slaughtered young, before the disease has incubated, statistically not even one infected animal would live to show clinical signs of the disease.

But those numerical calculations, buried in a thick USDA report, aren’t likely to comfort the ranchers or consumers.

That’s because risk is as much about perception as reality, said David Ropeik, a Boston-based consultant who specializes in risks and how people perceive them. He points to what he calls “the dread factor,” the fact that emotional fears of painful or gruesome fates — however unlikely — can easily overcome rational calculations.

“The risk of a human getting this disease from cows is so extraordinarily low,” Ropeik said.

“However, if I’m in animal agriculture in America, the reopening of the Canadian border is a real reason to be mildly concerned. To the extent that the risk is not zero of an imported animal just plain showing up on this side of the border, that will set off alarm bells that will have economic consequences.”

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or

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