SEATTLE -- The Bush administration urged a federal appeals court yesterday to reopen the border to Canadian cattle imports, which were banned from the United States in 2003 after a cow in Alberta was found to have mad cow disease.
Justice Department attorney Mark Stern told a three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit that lifting the ban would not result in the ''infestation in American livestock," and added that reopening the border was based on ''good science."
The government made the arguments in the high-stakes border dispute as a gallery full of reporters and attorneys looked on. A large room where the case was televised was filled with cattle ranchers wearing cowboy hats and jeans. A member of the Canadian Parliament also watched the 40-minute hearing.
The government is asking the judges to overturn a March ruling by a federal judge in Montana who sided with US ranchers, who fear dire economic and health consequences from a mad cow outbreak in the United States.
US District Judge Richard F. Cebull in Montana ruled that the US Department of Agriculture's decision to reopen the border ''subjects the entire US beef industry to potentially catastrophic damages" and ''presents a genuine risk of death for US consumers."
But the three judges on the appeals panel seemed skeptical of Cebull's ruling, suggesting that he went too far.
Mad cow disease is the common name for bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE. People who eat meat tainted with BSE can contract a degenerative, fatal brain disorder called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. More than 150 people died from it after a 1986 outbreak in the United Kingdom.
No humans in the United States or Canada have died from eating meat from an infected cow.
The dispute pits ranchers -- whose profits have improved slightly without Canadian competition -- against feedlots and packers, which have fewer cows to feed and slaughter without Canadian supplies.
Ranchers, who sued under the Montana-based lobbying group Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund United Stockgrowers, said an infected Texas-born cow discovered two weeks ago shows the need for a closed border, to prevent an epidemic.
Russell Frye, the ranchers' attorney, told the judges that the USDA ''didn't determine what was an acceptable number of infected cattle to come in."
But the three judges suggested that Judge Cebull perhaps should have given deference to the USDA's decision. Judge A. Wallace Tashima said the law ''does invest the secretary of agriculture with a certain amount of discretion" and suggested that the lower court's order was just ''disagreeing with the secretary."
Some industry observers say the argument is actually about profits, not consumer health.
US cattlemen are getting more for their cows without the competition of Canadian beef. But profits have declined at packers and feedlots, which are paying the higher prices for cattle to process. They say that Canada's cattle are safe and that the ranchers are more interested in monopolizing supplies than protecting the meat-eating public.
Americans' appetite for beef is being supplemented by imports, including Canadian beef that is processed to remove parts susceptible to BSE -- brains, bones, eyes, and spinal cords -- before crossing the border.