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WASHINGTON - Supporters of mandatory Country of Origin Labeling, which the current Farm Bill requires be implemented by 2004, on Wednesday said that the discovery of Mad Cow disease in Canada shows the need for letting consumers know the source of steaks and hamburger.
"This is devastating news for the U.S. cattle market," said United Stockgrowers of America president Leo McDonnell. "Because of NAFTA, Canada has free access to the U.S. market and their beef is not labeled for the consumer. There is currently no way for consumers to know for certain if the beef they are eating came from Canada or not."
The United States imported nearly 1 billion pounds of Canadian beef and 1 million head of cattle last year, according to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.
Terry Stokes, NCBA's CEO, said it was too soon to gauge what the impact of the discovery of BSE in Canada will have on the COOL debate. "The U.S. is highly resistant to BSE, due to our triple fire wall level of protection in place by the federal government," Stokes said.
Stokes also said he believes American consumers should be confident that their food is safe because of the ban and because the U.S. government routinely tests for the disease.
But the National Farmers Union asserts that the discovery of BSE in Canada supports the argument for mandatory country of origin labeling. "While country of origin labeling cannot prevent a disease like BSE, it would help reassure consumers and our markets," said NFU president Dave Fredrickson.
When food safety concerns arise, country of origin labeling will arm consumers with information to make educated decisions instead of decisions based on fear and doubt, he said.
In other developments, a Canadian official acknowledged that his country held onto samples from the cow infected with mad cow disease for four months, possibly allowing potentially sick cows into the food chain, reports the Associated Press.
Dr. Claude Lavigne, a top official at Canada's animal products directorate, told U.S. and Canadian reporters during a teleconference that officials are searching for other cows infected with the disease, also known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, as a precautionary measure,
On Tuesday, Canada said it found a cow had been sick with mad cow disease, a brain-wasting illness. Officials got the test results four months after taking samples from the cow at a rendering plant.
U.S. and Canadian officials have said none of the infected animal went into the food supply. Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D. said Canadian officials should have promptly checked samples and released the results.
Although Canadian and U.S. officials have declared that the food supply is safe, Consumers Union said the two governments cannot guarantee that. "That's exactly what they said in Britain, and now nobody trusts the government there," said Mike Hansen, a senior research associate for the consumers group.