YAKIMA, Wash. (AP)--Canadian ranchers, devastated by a U.S. ban on live cattle imports from their country, have a plan for ensuring their survival--one that could have repercussions for the U.S. cattle industry in the future.
So warns an official with the Canadian Cattlemen's Association, who is visiting with officials and cattle producers in Washington state in late April to plead his country's case for reopening the U.S.border.
"Regardless of whether the border opens or not, we have a plan to ensure we survive," said John Masswohl, director of international relations for the Canadian Cattlemen's Association, which represents as many as 100,000 Canadian cattle producers.
The United States closed the border to live cattle imports in May 2003 after bovine spongiform encephalopathy was discovered in Canada. Efforts to reopen the border have been hampered by the discovery of the disease in a Canadian-born Holstein in Mabton, Wash., in December 2003, and by two subsequent cases in Alberta.
Before the ban, Canada had shipped about 60 percent of its cattle to the United States for slaughter. Some have estimated losses as high as $5.6 billion for the Canadian cattle industry since then.
"The pain hasn't all been in Canada. Certainly, there have been plenty of producers and entities in Washington state that suffered as a result of the situation as well," Masswohl said.
But Canadian cattlemen have reached the point where they must control their own destiny, he said. That includes increasing Canada's slaughter capacity to reduce reliance on the border reopening.
The country only had a national capacity to slaughter 72,000 head of cattle a week before the ban. That now stands at 84,000 head and new construction is expected to boost capacity even more by year's end.
Increasing the number of slaughterhouses in Canada could be a blow to U.S. slaughterhouses, particularly those in Washington, Utah and Minnesota that rely more on Canadian cattle.
Thirty percent of the cattle slaughtered in Utah came from Canada before the ban, followed by Washington at 18 percent and Minnesota at 12 percent.
Masswohl met with the state agriculture director April 25 to discuss the situation, and planned visits with cattlemen in the state April 26. The visits were the first of several planned across the country to stress the impact the border closure could have on U.S. cattle producers.
"Our objective is not to create a negative impact on jobs in the United States, but it just seems there is a natural level that the market can bear," he said. "If we're building more in Canada, it seems there would be a counterbalance here."
Jack Field, executive director of the Washington Cattlemen's Association, said Washington state cattle producers understand their counterparts' concerns in Canada.
"I don't think there's a cattleman in Washington state or anywhere in the country who doesn't understand the pain the Canadian cattlemen are enduring," Field said.
But the ban on live cattle imports from Canada should not be lifted until the United States can resume normal trade with other markets, Field said.
Dozens of countries banned U.S. beef imports after the disease was found in the United States.
In addition, Field noted that any repercussions of Canada's steps to increase slaughter capacity will vary depending on the segment of the U.S. industry. At least one group of U.S. cattlemen has sued to prevent the United States from reopening the border.
"Our membership is enjoying some of the highest prices and greatest profits they've enjoyed in a number of years," he said. "It's going to be tough to sell that it's going to be a hard hit for my members."
Bovine spongiform encephalopathy or BSE, eats holes in the brains of cattle. Food contaminated with BSE is believed to cause variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans--a rare illness that is usually fatal.