Canadian cattle could soon resume their trek south of the border, under a proposed USDA rule announced Oct. 31. The border between the two countries was essentially shut down to livestock May 20, 2003 when a single case of BSE was discovered in Canada.

USDA's proposed rule would amend the agency's bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) regulations to establish a new “minimal risk” category for those regions in which an animal has been diagnosed with BSE, also known as “mad cow disease.” Regions allowed under the rule must have put into place specific preventive measures for an appropriate period of time reducing the risk of the disease being introduced to the United States.

That would allow certain regions, including Canada, to once again import certain low-risk livestock and livestock products into the United States.

Animals allowed into the United States under the proposed rule include: cattle less than 30 months old for immediate slaughter, or to be fed and then slaughtered before they are 30 months old; sheep and goats that are less than 12 months of age for immediate slaughter, or to be fed and slaughtered before they are 12 months of age; hunter-harvested wild game, and some meat products such as calf liver and cow tongues.

“The United States has a long history of having safeguards in place to prevent the introduction of BSE,” said Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman. “The continued protection of the U.S. food supply is our top priority. This proposal reflects a thorough review of the scientific evidence, which shows the risk to public health to be extremely low.”

USDA says it believes that the surveillance, prevention and control measures implemented by Canada are sufficient to be included in the minimal risk category.

Commissioned by USDA, a recent risk assessment by the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis finds that even if infected animals or ruminant feed material were to enter the United States from Canada, the risk of it spreading extensively within the U.S. herd is low, that any possible spread would be reversed by controls put in place in the late 1990s, and that eventually, the disease would be eliminated from the United States.

“This study shows that the measures taken in the United States over the years greatly reduce the chance of BSE spreading and help insure that the disease will not become a major animal or public health problem in America,” says George Gray, executive director of the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis.

The study evaluates the potential for BSE to spread if it were introduced from Canada prior to May 20, when USDA banned all ruminant and ruminant products from Canada because of the discovery of the single case of BSE.

According to the Center's risk assessment, the Food and Drug Administration's 1997 ban on feeding most mammalian protein back to other ruminants essentially stops the possible spread of the disease.

The disease has never been detected in U.S. cattle, and since 1989, USDA has banned the import of live ruminants, such as cattle, sheep and goats, and most ruminant products from the United Kingdom and other countries having BSE. The ban was extended to Europe in 1997.

Since 1990, USDA has had an aggressive BSE surveillance program in place to insure detection and a swift response if the disease were introduced into the United States.

“Mad Cow Disease,” or BSE, is a progressive neurological disease among cattle that is always fatal. It belongs to a family of diseases known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, which also includes Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, which is believed to be caused by eating neural tissue, such as brain and spinal cord, from BSE affected cattle.

To comment on the proposed rule before USDA's Jan. 5 deadline, send an original and three copies of your comments to Docket No. 03-080-1, Regulatory Analysis and Development, PPD, APHIS, Station 3C71, 4700 River Road Unit 118, Riverdale, Md. 20737-1238.

If you use e-mail, address your comments to regulations@aphis.usda.gov. Comments must be contained in the body of the message, as USDA will not open attached files. Please include your name and address in the message and use “Docket No. 03-080-1” on the subject line.

A full listing of the proposed regulations can be found at http://www.aphis.usda.gov/.