WASHINGTON (AP) – The Bush administration halted plans to increase imports of beef and cattle from Canada amid new evidence that Canada’s safeguards against mad cow disease are not working.

The Canadian safeguards are stricter than those in the United States, which is under pressure from McDonald’s and other food companies to toughen the rules in this country.

The Bush administration had been poised to expand beef trade with Canada, but the department said Friday the plan is on hold while Canada investigates a recently discovered case of mad cow disease.

“It is important to confirm that Canada’s regulatory system is effectively protecting consumers and livestock so there is no question about safety as we proceed,” Agriculture Department spokesman Ed Loyd said Friday.

At issue is a ban on using cattle remains in cattle feed, the primary firewall against the spread of mad cow disease. The only known way for cattle to get the disease is by eating feed containing diseased cattle tissue, a practice largely outlawed in Canada and the United States in 1997.

Earlier this month, Canada discovered an infected cow born in 2002, five years after the ban went into effect.

The cow’s age – younger than previously infected animals – suggests a shorter incubation period for the brain wasting disease, meaning it could have gotten a bigger dose of infection than other Canadian cases.

Researcher Michael Hansen of Consumers Union said if the feed ban were working properly, the amount infected material in the system should drop. And if less contaminated material were getting into the feed, it should take longer for cows to develop the disease. “That does suggest the feed ban doesn’t appear to be having a huge impact,” Hansen said.

Canadian Food Inspection Agency official Francine Lord said the incubation period in the recently infected cow was not unusual and still within a normal range of three to eight years. She said officials are wrapping up their investigation. A U.S. Agriculture Department investigator participated in the probe.

The plan to resume imports of older cattle and beef from older animals had been under final consideration by the White House, but the department said Friday it has withdrawn the plan for now.

The U.S. imports roughly 12 percent of its beef. Last year, Canada accounted for nearly a quarter of those imports, shipping $1.2 billion worth of beef and veal, an estimated 812 million pounds, to U.S. markets.

In addition to meat, 544,858 cattle have crossed the border from Canada this year.

The U.S. imposed blanket restrictions against Canadian cattle and beef after Canada found its first case of the disease in May 2003. In December 2003, an infected cow from Canada was discovered in Washington state and became the first U.S. case of the disease.

Imports of beef from younger cattle resumed swiftly, but a court battle with a Western ranchers’ group kept the border from reopening to live cattle until July 2005. Since then, imports have been restricted to animals younger than 30 months.

The U.S. has since found two more cases, in native-born animals in Texas and Alabama. Canada has found seven cases in all.

Canadian officials have blamed infections on cross-contamination at feed mills, because cattle remains have been allowed in food for other livestock and pets. Canada announced recently it will ban cattle tissues known to carry the disease from feed for all livestock and pets.

The U.S. feed ban is less restrictive than Canada’s, drawing criticism from companies like McDonald’s, the nation’s No. 1 burger seller, and food and agribusiness giant Cargill Inc., one of the world’s largest privately held companies.

Officials have proposed to tighten the ban, but not as much as Canada has.

U.S. cattle producers say further restrictions are unnecessary because this country has lower risks.

Regardless, people are safe, said Gary Weber, executive director of regulatory affairs for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

Weber said the disease is not found in the muscle meat that makes steaks, and the most recent Canadian case never entered the food supply for people and animals.

“All the safeguards that are there will continue to be there to protect public health,” Weber said.

Mad cow disease is the common name for bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, a brain-wasting disorder that infected more than 180,000 cows and was blamed for more than 150 human deaths during a European outbreak that peaked in 1993.

Humans can get a related disease, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, by eating meat contaminated with mad cow.

On the Net:

Agriculture Department: http://www.usda.gov

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