USDA employees, who issued permits to Canadian beef exporters in the months after mad-cow disease regulations were imposed, said they were pressured by high-level officials to expand the list of products allowed in despite restrictions, according to the head of auditing for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's inspector general in a Dow Jones News report.

Robert Young, assistant inspector general for auditing, told the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture Thursday, "The feedback we got from the (USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service) staff was that there was a lot of pressure to open the border as much as possible to Canada. They felt there was pressure from the bring as many eligible low-risk product as possible across the border from Canada into the United States."

The USDA banned all Canadian cattle and beef on May 20, 2003, when Canada reported its first case of mad-cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy. Less than three months later, on Aug. 8, the USDA eased the prohibition on Canada by agreeing to issue permits to allow in boneless beef from cattle younger than 30 months old.

But, by Aug. 27, 2003, USDA's APHIS officials had already decided to begin allowing in beef products not included in the original Aug. 8 announcement, even though they "did not announce or otherwise publicize the decision," the inspector general said in a report released Wednesday.

Although APHIS employees were issuing permits for ineligible Canadian beef products as early as Aug. 27, 2003, it was not until October of that year that the administrator of APHIS conveyed his decision in a memorandum to allow in processed beef products such as ground beef, the inspector general said in its report.

In November, APHIS began allowing in Canadian shipments of bone-in beef products, the inspector general said, so long as they came from Canadian facilities that received and processed bone-in product from New Zealand, Australia and the U.S.

Bobby Acord was administrator of APHIS at the time the permits were being written for Canadian beef products until he retired on April 3, 2004. Later that month, a federal judge in Montana issued a court order stopping the USDA from expanding beef imports from Canada. The judge made the ruling in response to a lawsuit by R-CALF United Stockgrowers of America, a U.S. cattle rancher group.

The inspector general stressed in its report that APHIS officials did not believe they were allowing in products that put U.S. consumers at risk, but the agency "did not document the process it used to determine the additional products were low risk."

USDA officials said last year that by the time the federal judge intervened in April, the department had allowed the importation of 7.3 million pounds of processed and bone-in beef products to the U.S. that were not eligible under USDA regulations established on Aug. 8, 2003.