U.S. aligns beef rules with OIE’s BSE standards

The U.S. government on Friday issued new import rules for cattle and beef that will comply with international standards for the prevention of BSE, saying the step could ultimately boost U.S. beef exports.

The European Union said the U.S. move would bring a welcome re-opening of a market closed to its beef since January 1998.

Lawmakers and industry groups also welcomed the news, saying it would help the U.S. regain access to markets that have been closed for decades.

World trade in beef was jolted in the 1980s by the discovery of BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy), a fatal brain-wasting disease in cattle. Many nations restricted imports and some do still, out of fear of a human version of the illness.

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“Making these changes will further demonstrate to our trading partners our commitment to international standards and sound science, and we are hopeful it will help open new markets and remove remaining restrictions on U.S. products,” said chief veterinarian John Clifford of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

As an example of the new revisions, USDA said boneless beef could be imported because research has shown the meat poses a negligible risk of BSE. Until now, imports were restricted from most nations that had reported a case of the disease.

USDA said the new revisions, which will be published in coming days and take effect 90 days afterward, would not weaken U.S. safeguards.

“This effort is crucial to breaking down other countries’ unfounded trade barriers, and re-opening trade markets that are closed to U.S. beef,” said Debbie Stabenow, chairwoman of the U.S. Senate agriculture committee.

Stabenow said Mexico employed a non-scientific limit on U.S. cattle exports by refusing to allow entry of animals over 30 months of age. She said U.S. producers lose an estimated US$100 million a year because of the limit.

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (U.S.) said the new rules were “great news for the U.S. cattle industry and integral to our efforts to further expand international trade.”

In a fact sheet, USDA said the changes “could convince other countries to remove any remaining restrictions on U.S. cattle and cattle products.” The rules bring USDA in line with the guidelines of the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE).

On May 29, the OIE gave the United States its safest classification for BSE, “negligible” risk.

U.S. officials have struggled for more than a decade to open markets that were restricted following discovery of the first U.S. case of the disease.

The U.S. is among the world’s largest importer and exporter of beef. Roughly 10 per cent of U.S. beef is exported, while imports make up nearly 10 per cent of the U.S. supply. Imports tend to be ground beef and lower-cost cuts of beef while the exports are high-value cuts.

Still, a small ranchers’ group, R-CALF USA, said it doubted the safety of beef from Europe and called for retention of a country-of-origin meat-labeling law currently under attack in Congress.

The U.S. uses three interlocking safeguards against BSE. Feed for cattle and other ruminants can’t contain rendered parts of ruminants. USDA runs a surveillance and testing program for mad cow. And meatpackers are required to remove from carcasses brains, spinal cords, nervous tissue and other materials that could be infected.

BSE, with an incubation period of years, is primarily a disease of older cattle. — Reuters

Related story:
Upgraded BSE rating may boost U.S. beef exports, May 29, 2013

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