SAN FRANCISCO — A federal appeals court overturned the ban on imports of Canadian cattle Thursday, despite a lower court's ruling that renewing the imports could spread mad cow disease in the United States.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture said that within days it would reopen the border to Canadian cattle, which were banned in May 2003 after a cow in Alberta was found to have mad cow disease.
"Because the ruling is effective immediately, we are immediately taking steps to resume the importation of cattle under 30 months of age," said Mike Johanns, Agriculture secretary.
He said the government was working with Canadian food inspectors "to certify cattle for shipment."
The unanimous decision by a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturns a ruling by a Montana judge who blocked the USDA from reopening the border in March, saying it "subjects the entire U.S. beef industry to potentially catastrophic damages" and "presents a genuine risk of death for U.S. consumers."
The judges said they would issue another ruling soon explaining their rationale.
The decision came a day after the Justice Department urged the appeals court in Seattle to reopen the border to imports.
Justice Department attorney Mark Stern said lifting the ban was based on "good science" and would not result in an "infestation in American livestock."
During the hearing, the three judges suggested that U.S. District Judge Richard F. Cebull 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."
Judge Connie Callahan agreed, saying the USDA was "entitled to some deference. It's their whole job to keep up with the science to make those decisions."
American Meat Institute President J. Patrick Boyle said the industry would be able to resume cattle shipments quickly.
"Feeders in Canada and packers in the United States, working with our respective governments, had planned to begin importing those live cattle effective March 7," Boyle said.
"A lot of the preliminary work is already done. I think you'll see the industry move quickly."
Boyle said the ruling was also a win for American consumers, who were paying $1.85 a pound for ground beef before the border closed and were paying about $2.55 today.
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.
The dispute pits ranchers -- whose profits have improved slightly without Canadian competition -- against feedlots and packers who have fewer cows to feed and slaughter without Canadian supplies.