That’s what American meatpackers have wondered ever since the United States closed its borders to cattle from Canada nearly two years ago. The shutdown was a response to a positive test for mad-cow disease. People who eat contaminated beef may risk contracting a fatal brain disorder known as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.
But now USDA investigators have said that Canadian cattle are safe for the American marketplace. On March 7, the border is expected to reopen to Canadian cattle that are no more than two-and-a-half years old.
It’s about time. Yet a few people aren’t happy with this development. Their concerns have nothing to do with public health and everything to do with old-fashioned economic protectionism. They want Canadian cattle kept out because they think it serves their interests to lock out competitors.
They refuse to admit their real agenda, of course. That’s because they know their true motives violate the principles that animate commerce between the United States and Canada. And so they’ve resorted to hype and scaremongering to frighten the American public, in the hopes that lawmakers will force a last-minute delay of the March 7 deadline.
Anybody with a shred of common sense ought to see this tactic as not only fundamentally dishonest, but also a devil’s bargain that almost certainly will come back to haunt American cattlemen.
Japan provides a perfect illustration. In 2003, the Japanese bought $1.7 billion in U.S. beef–more than any other country in the world. But this came to a screeching halt in December of that year, after inspectors found a single case of mad-cow disease in a U.S. herd. Ever since, the Japanese have bought their beef from elsewhere, mainly Australia.
It goes without saying that our beef exports have suffered enormously. Meatpacking companies have scaled back on their production–and many people have found themselves out of work.
Because of this, reopening the beef trade with Japan has been one of our government’s top diplomatic priorities. Whenever American officials meet with their Japanese counterparts, it tops the agenda (along with the vital issue of containing North Korea). We’ve made some progress in recent months, and it looks like Japan may lift its ban soon.
Yet there are countervailing pressures, including last month’s first-ever confirmed death resulting from Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in Japan. The victim almost certainly contracted the disease when he lived in Great Britain in 1989, but that detail won’t necessarily assuage consumers nervous about any reports linking mad-cow disease to American herds.
What’s more, Japan surely won’t lift its ban if it starts listening to the voices of protectionism inside the United States. If Canadian cattle aren’t good enough for Americans, then why is American beef good enough for the Japanese?
Anybody who seeks to refute this logic is trying to have his burger and eat it, too.
Keeping the ban in place could punish Americans in other ways as well. Canadians haven’t exactly been twiddling their thumbs. Instead, they’ve tried to solve their problem by increasing their own ability to process meat. That means they won’t need American processors as much as they once did. “If the border continues to remain closed for too much longer, we will be seeing many more permanent job losses,” in the United States, says Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia
This isn’t the only way in which Americans may suffer. Citing a little-known provision of NAFTA, one group of Canadian ranchers says the ban is illegal and wants at least $325 million in compensation. They probably won’t get anything near that amount. They may not get anything at all. But if they get something, guess who’s going to pay for it?
Finally, the practice of allowing protectionism to masquerade as a matter of public health complicates many of the trade disputes between the United States and the European Union, such as the huge disagreement over biotech crops. More specifically, there’s the EU’s ban on hormone-injected beef. If we’re going to block Canadian cattle with phony health considerations, we can’t very well continue to argue that the Europeans should abandon their current trade policies, which are no more fraudulent.
Closing the border to Canadian cattle was a responsible decision when it was made. But now its time has passed, and we must begin to recognize what happened as a regulatory success story. After all, an infected cow was detected. It didn’t enter the food supply, and nobody’s health was ever put into question. There’s still more we can do, such as improving our ability to trace individual animals and harmonizing our rules with those in Canada. But our food supply is safe right now, and it will be safe following March 7 as well.
American cattlemen–and I’m one of them–need to understand that they benefit from free trade. We should not be the least bit fearful of our ability to compete with the world. We are tremendously productive and we can go head-to-head against anyone.
Are we really that afraid of the Canadians?
Reg Clause raises cattle, corn and soybeans on a fourth generation family farm in central Iowa.