Magazine article The American Enterprise

Precaution or Protectionism?

Magazine article The American Enterprise

Precaution or Protectionism?

Article excerpt

On March 7, the United States was due to reopen its borders to Canadian cattle and beef imports. The border had been closed since May 2003, when the first case of the incurable "mad cow disease," more properly termed BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy), was discovered in Canada. In truth, the ban achieved very little except pain for American consumers. It's also given us a valuable case study in the power of "precautionary" arguments to inflict serious economic harm.

The ban was justified initially on the basis of BSE's well publicized threat to human health. The argument was that these BSE cases could be just the tip of an iceberg, and that it was therefore better to be safe than sorry. Yet the simple fact is that the Canadian cases of BSE pose no noticeable threat to human health, and precious little to the health of cattle herds. The disease reached epidemic proportions in parts of Europe only because of the practice of feeding cattle with contaminated meat, a practice that was always rare in North America before it was banned outright in 1997.

Today, the U.S. guards against contaminated meat through a variety of measures, including the 1997 feed ban, import controls, a BSE surveillance program, and public health response plans.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has consistently--and correctly--argued that the border closure provides no economic or public health benefit. But the agency's efforts to reopen the border were frustrated by an adverse court decision that showed blind acceptance of precautionary arguments without realizing the protectionist intent behind them. …

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