A group representing U.S. meat packers and processors said it expects to argue its case in court later this month for a preliminary injunction to force the U.S. to open its border to Canadian cattle of all ages, not just the younger ones it already plans to lift a ban on.

The USDA is scheduled to lift its ban on Canadian cattle that are 30 months old or younger and all Canadian beef, regardless of how old the source animal was, on March 7.

But the American Meat Institute claims that plan is unfair because it would keep out 300,000 to 400,000 older Canadian cattle a year that would normally be slaughtered and processed in the U.S.

Mark Dopp, AMI's general council and head of regulatory affairs, told reporters: "If you don't allow the older animals to come into the country, those animals will be slaughtered and processed in Canada." Dopp said that situation would encourage Canadian industry to process those cattle and export the beef into the U.S. at very low prices.

There are 25 to 30 U.S. plants that specialize in slaughtering and processing older cattle and "there is a shortage of those types of animals in the United States today," Dopp said.

Jim Hodges, president of the American Meat Institute Foundation, said those facilities primarily produce hamburger, hot dogs and other processed meats.

AMI filed its suit against the USDA in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on Dec. 30, one day after USDA unveiled its plan to lift the ban on younger Canadian cattle. On Jan. 27 AMI sought a preliminary injunction in an effort to get a ruling by March 7.

Dopp said he expects the USDA to file its response to the preliminary injunction request with the court by Feb. 18 and then a hearing a few days after that.

The AMI challenges are not against the USDA's new plan, but rather the portion of the original USDA ban on Canada regarding older cattle that would be left in place on March 7.

AMI, in its request for a preliminary injunction, said, "Continued enforcement of the remaining part of the initial border closing order would cause irreparable harm to AMI's member organizations by ... causing irreversible structural changes in the North American beef industry."

AMI is not the only U.S. group suing USDA over its proposed policy on Canadian cattle. The R-CALF United Stockgrowers of America, a small rancher group, filed a request Tuesday in the U.S. District Court in Montana for a preliminary injunction to prevent USDA from lifting its ban on any Canadian
cattle.

Bill Bullard, chief executive of R-CALF, said Tuesday that USDA's decision to lift the ban in March was made "without regard to the economic impact on U.S. cattle producers, and without regard to the increased and unassessed risks to human health."

But AMI's Hodges said Canadian cattle present no danger to U.S. cattle or human consumers. All of the cattle parts susceptible to BSE infection, called specified risk materials, or SRMs, are removed in slaughter facilities in the U.S. and Canada, he said.

And AMI President J. Patrick Boyle stressed that if R-CALF were to be successful preventing USDA from allowing in Canadian cattle, U.S. plants would begin to shut down at the same time as Canada increased its slaughter and processing capacity.