The Bush administration would have us believe Canadian beef will start hoofing it across the border on March 7.
Call me a pessimist and a skeptic, but I won't believe it until I see that first cow cross the line, her hip carrying a "CAN" brand. Under the new U.S. rule, this patriotic symbol will inform officials that she hails from north of the 49th.
With more recent fiascoes in the beef industry, including two additional cases of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), and questions about feed possibly contaminated with animal protein, this border opening may be branded a "NO-CAN" do.
It's understandable that ranchers, hearing on Dec. 29 that the U.S. planned to resume trade in cattle, would break into a robust round of the Hallelujah Chorus. Ever since the first Alberta cow was diagnosed with BSE, they've endured two years of miserable uncertainty. So, with the border-opening news arriving in the season of peace and goodwill, who would dare whisper that this still had to be passed by Congress?
But now, with the festive season behind us, shouts of protest are crossing U.S. political floors. The 109th Congress was barely under way, when the bickering began over Canuck beef.
By the end of the first day of session Rep. Earl Pomeroy, a Democrat from North Dakota, had already introduced a bill to block the border opening - at least until the U.S. regains markets it had before its own mad-cow crisis (one year ago, a Washington state dairy cow, originating from Canada, was diagnosed with BSE). In other words, until Japan opens its doors to U.S. beef, the Americans don't want ours.
Senator Byron Dorgan, another North Dakota Democrat, also called for the rule allowing Canadian cattle imports to be cancelled. "In light of the fact there has now been another confirmed case of BSE in Canada, it is clear the responsibility of the USDA should be to immediately suspend efforts to open that border," Dorgan said in a letter to outgoing U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman.
"I know this news is a tough blow to Canadian beef producers . . . but our first responsibility is to protect the American beef industry, which has taken a significant hit in its export markets as a result of the Canadian cow that was discovered with BSE in Washington state last year."
Senator Mark Dayton, a Minnesota Democrat, joined the chorus, calling plans to open the border an "ill-considered decision."
Against this backdrop are the cries of the Montana-based Ranchers Cattlemen's Action Legal Fund (R-CALF), saying the new rule flies in the face of science-based disease prevention. The group is now suing the U.S. Department of Agriculture, saying its plan to expand cattle trade with Canada poses a risk to consumers and U.S. producers. Remember, these are the guys largely responsible for the 19-month delay in dealing with the border issue.
And if Alberta's latest cases of mad cow - discovered within 10 days of the U.S. announcing its plans to resume cattle trade - aren't enough to make these politicians think twice, how about the possibility of feed mills packaging contaminated feed?
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is now investigating how animal protein turned up in some mixtures that were supposed to be grain- and vegetable-based. Rightly so, this has renewed the call by the Canadian Health Coalition to withdraw all animal protein - not just ruminant parts - from feed.
No kidding. Until this happens, there will always be the risk of cross-contamination at feed mills.To leave bull-sized loopholes in our food safety program is to hand the U.S. another excuse not to open the border.
Not that their system is any safer. I, for one, find it hard to believe that their cattle testing hasn't turned up one BSE animal (except for the Washington state animal that was traced back to Canada). And some of their feed mills have also come under fire for failing to abide by the ban on ruminant-to-ruminant feed.
But if we're supposed to be setting an example on how to do things right, then we better get our own house in order. As High River-area rancher Grant Hirsche says: "This is far from over."
Even if the border does open on March 7, it's not as if everything will be milk and honey, with orderly queues of happy cows going to the fertile land of muscled bulls. The Americans aren't taking breeding animals or animals older than 30 months. And there's no time line for accepting such animals. So even the so-called "open border" has a false-positive ring.
So what's a rancher to do?
I'm rooting for those local producers trying to wean themselves from the U.S. market. Global economy is one thing, but there's still something to be said for that independent, but co-operative, spirit that burned strong in Alberta's early ranchers.
Let's not forget that the United Farmers of Alberta, formed in 1909 to represent the economic issues of farmers, was the province's leading political party from 1921 to 1935. It makes sense that ranchers should once again come together to address their own needs. I'm not talking about expansion of American-owned slaughterhouse plants; I'm talking about facilities owned by Canadian producers. Why shouldn't ranchers enjoy post-slaughter benefits?
We may not be able to go back to the family farm, where every backyard had a rooster, chickens, a pig or two, a milk cow, and a barn full of work horses. But surely producers can gather as a family, and put up the money to keep their business benefits at home.
Successful business arises from good business sense. Slaughtering our own beef here makes sense. Producer and Canadian ownership of packing plants makes sense.
Leaving ourselves vulnerable to the whims of a fragile border - a political door hinged on a tight spring - does not make sense.
I, for one, have March 7 circled in pencil, not pen.
(Wendy Dudley is an award-winning agricultural writer who lives in southern Alberta.)