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Baucus calls for probe before Canadian imports resume

HELENA (AP) - The United States should not reopen its border to live Canadian cattle imports until the investigative arm of Congress conducts its own investigation into Canada's handling of mad cow cases there, Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., said Tuesday.

Baucus' call for an independent investigation by the General Accounting Office comes one day before the U.S. Department of Agriculture closes its comment period on a proposal to reopen the border to cattle older than 30 months of age.

Baucus said he has asked the GAO to examine the actions the Canadian government and cattle industry have undertaken to guard against another case of mad cow there.

''The decision to reopen the border with Canada needs to be based on sound science,'' Baucus said in a written statement. ''At this point I don't think the public has the information to be able to determine if the sound science is there.''

The U.S. border was closed to Canadian beef in May after a case of mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, was found on an Alberta farm. Some beef exports resumed last fall, and Canadian officials hoped the rest of the restrictions would be lifted early this year.

Instead, cross-border cattle shipments have remained banned following the discovery in late December that a cow in Washington state that tested positive for BSE originated in Alberta.

Baucus said he wants to ensure that Canada's safety program is consistent with the high standards set by the International Organization of Epizootics, a veterinary body which reflects a consensus of international scientific opinion.

Baucus is a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee and the highest ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over international trade policy.

Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman on Monday, expressing his concern with the proposal to reopen the border.

Burns, a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, said he is concerned both about adequate protections undertaken in Canada, and about the potential effects on the market of reopening the border.

''There's an awful lot of fat cattle sitting just north of the border, and the sudden influx of beef will make our domestic markets unstable,'' he said Monday. ''It is imperative we can ensure the safety of our food and the protection of our American producers before we open those floodgates again.''

Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., echoed Burns' remarks.

''We need to restore our foreign beef markets before allowing increased imports from Canada,'' said Rehberg, a member of the House Agricultural Committee. ''We must guarantee safeguards to protect our domestic market from being flooded and devastating our beef industry.''

Eating meat from animals with mad cow has been linked to a rare but fatal condition in people, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, although no cases have been traced to U.S. beef.


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