WASHINGTON, Nov. 1, 2013 – USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) announced a final rule today that aims to modernize the agency’s import regulations in relation to bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease, that supporters say may allow for more U.S. exports of beef products and critics say may lead to more food safety issues in the United States.

APHIS said the rule shows the United States will base its BSE regulations on internationally-accepted scientific literature and standards set by the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE). The agency said the rule will allow for the safe trade of bovines and bovine products, while protecting the United States from the introduction of BSE.

“This action will bring our BSE import regulations in line with international standards, which call for countries to base their trade policies on the actual risk of animals or products harboring the disease,” said John Clifford, APHIS deputy administrator and chief veterinary officer. “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.”

Under the rule, beef products that are currently restricted but pose “negligible risk” for BSE could be imported under certain circumstances, according to APHIS. The rule basically allows for the import of boneless beef from cattle of any age, with some restrictions. The standard of trade, between nations, has sporadically been not to accept beef products from cattle over the age of 30 months, which has often been the cut-off date in terms of BSE safety. The rule, which has been in the works for years, will be published in the Federal Register, and would become effective 90 days after publication.

Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said the rule should help ensure other countries are not able to place non-tariff trade barriers on U.S. beef. “This effort is crucial to breaking down other countries’ unfounded trade barriers, and re-opening trade markets that are closed to U.S. beef. American agriculture has long set the gold standard for food production and safety,” Stabenow said.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said the rule can give the U.S. Trade Representative and USDA a “stronger position” to press other nations to follow OIE’s standards on BSE standards, and accept U.S. beef exports.

In support of the rule, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) said the regulation sends a clear message to trading partners of the value being placed on fair trade by the United States. NCBA president Scott George said the regulations will allow the U.S. beef industry to expand foreign market access and meet international demand.

J. Patrick Boyle, president and chief executive officer of the American Meat Institute, said the rule takes a significant step forward to make U.S. beef import regulations more consistent with international animal health standards.

“We have long said that having such a rule in place will show leadership on the global scale and believe it will enhance U.S. trade and give USTR and USDA a stronger position to press other nations to follow the OIE’s guidelines and adopt science-based BSE policies,” Boyle said.

In opposition, Bill Bullard, chief executive officer of R-CALF USA, said the rule would “radically relax U.S. import restrictions for countries where [BSE] continues to persist.”

Bullard said the EU reported four new BSE cases in 2013.“The new USDA rule opens the door to allow U.S. meatpackers to begin supplementing tight U.S. beef supplies with beef of questionable safety from Europe,” he said.

Wenanoh Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, described the announcement as “another Friday afternoon special,” in reference to the generally lower news readership on Friday nights and Saturdays.

Hauter said the APHIS rule that would permit some beef products to be imported from countries that have experienced cases of mad cow disease. Hauter said current restrictions will be lifted on countries that are considered to have “minimal risk” of the disease in their animal herds.

“Europe would like to increase its beef exports to the U.S., but because of our current policy of restricting the importation of beef products from countries that have experienced mad cow disease, those exports have been minimal,” Hauter said. “The new policy will allow Europe to increase its beef exports dramatically in exchange, we expect, for a quid pro quo. Will the Europeans drop their objections to the U.S. cattle industry’s use of bovine growth hormones or to the use of chlorine in poultry processing?”

Michael Hansen, senior scientist at the Consumers Union, told Agri-Pulse that USDA called a late day conference with stakeholders, and no media, to discuss the rule.

Hansen said Clifford said the risk of BSE contamination is negligible, and that the number of new cases has been going down worldwide. “[Clifford] said there’s no real problem out there,” Hansen said.

Still, Hansen questioned whether the disease could be “incubating” within people, and eventually come out in a manner similar to HIV.

The final APHIS rule can be viewed here.


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