An international livestock conference being held in Calgary next week couldn't be more timely in the wake of the recent discovery of a second "mad cow" in the United States, industry experts say.
The diagnosis of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in the 12-year-old Texas-born animal shows just how fast the global beef industry can change, says event organizer Gina Grosenick.
About 400 delegates from around the world are expected at this year's International Livestock Congress - a one-day event at the Stampede grounds staged by the Canadian Cattlemen's Association, the Calgary Exhibition and Stampede, and the International Stockmen's Education Foundation.
With this latest BSE case, the industry continues to evolve as new players enter the international market, Grosenick says.
"We'll be looking at who has moved into the marketplace since BSE and what infrastructure each country has to sustain its market share," she says.
Canada and the U.S. are now facing a similar predicament as BSE-tainted nations. The recent BSE diagnosis in the American beef cow slaughtered at a pet- food plant in Waco, Tex., was the first reported "home-grown" case of BSE in the U.S.
"This puts Canada and the U.S. on an even playing field," says Canadian Cattlemen's Association president Stan Eby. Since the two countries share an integrated beef industry, it was expected the U.S would eventually discover BSE in its herds, he adds.
"We're now pitching from the same mound and negotiating from the same base," agrees Canada Beef Export Federation president Ted Haney.
BSE was first diagnosed in Canada in spring of 2003. Since then, the U.S. border has been closed to live Canadian cattle, costing Canada's beef industry about $7 billion.
The U.S. diagnosed its first case of BSE in December 2003, in a Washington state dairy cow imported from Alberta.
Tracing the Texas cow's herd of origin is proving difficult because its remains were improperly mixed with parts of other animals when the initial BSE test was conducted last November.
The infected animal was born before the 1997 feed ban and did not enter the food chain. BSE has been linked to variant Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease, a fatal condition in humans.
Beef industry negotiations between the two countries on such issues as feed bans should now be easier, predicts Haney, as harmonization is necessary for the survival of the industry in a global marketplace.
"(Until now) the U.S. hasn't seen any need for extra measures in a feed ban, and for us to take the measures, it means a cost that would put us at a disadvantage," Haney says.
Arguing that BSE is a North American problem, not just a Canadian problem, beef industry officials also hope the U.S. will now work more closely with Canada in reopening foreign markets.
Key markets such as Japan, Mexico and Europe have always viewed Canada and the U.S. as carrying the same risk of BSE, Haney says. But Taiwan and Indonesia have, until now, held separate negotiations.
With the U.S. diagnosis, Taiwan has shut its border to U.S. beef imports, but trade with Canada was expected to resume July 1. "The (U.S. case) could lead to a delay in that happening, but I don't think it's a case of the border there closing again," Haney says.
In its efforts to reduce dependence on the U.S., Canada is focusing on such overseas markets as Taiwan, which imports 150,000 tonnes of beef each year, half of it from Canada and the U.S.
"It's an important market because they pay a significant premium for cuts not typically sold here," Haney notes. Beef parts that Canada normally grinds into hamburger are sold in Taiwan at top prices. "It's great value for us and it helps reduce any backlog of hamburger meat," he says.
This latest BSE discovery came less than a month before a hearing in Montana that could determine the future of beef trade between Canada and the U.S.
An American producer group - Rancher-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund (R-CALF) - claims Canadian beef and cattle are unsafe and should be banned from the U.S. Its argument, however, was largely based on the U.S. being a BSE-free country, Eby notes. "That isn't the case anymore."
In a recently-issued statement, R-CALF wasn't backing down, claiming BSE is more prevalent in Canadian herds. "Just the fact that Canada has had four cases of BSE in native cattle in the past two years suggests the prevalence rate of the disease is higher in Canada than in the United States," said R-CALF president Leo McDonnell. (Canada has had three reported cases, but the U.S. considers the Washington state cow a Canadian case).
In March, a Montana judge sided with the protectionist group, extending the border closure to live Canadian cattle. The U.S. government is appealing that ruling in a Seattle court on July 13. As part of the same hearing, the U.S. Court of Appeals will also hear an appeal from the National Meat Association, which represents American meat packers.
The border closure has cost the packing industry numerous job losses, as major American packing plants such as Tyson Foods, Cargill, and Swift and Co. have cut back on processing because of cattle shortages. Several plants have also closed.
Later this month on July 27, R-CALF will again take its case to the Montana district court judge who granted the temporary injunction, in an attempt to make the border closing permanent.
The group also wants a ban against Canadian boxed beef, a move that would further devastate Alberta's beef industry and cost Canada approximately $1.5 billion annually.
In hearing the case, U.S. federal Judge Richard Cebull will consider friend of the court, or amicus curiae, briefs from the Canadian Cattlemen's Association and the Alberta Beef Producers.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns has argued that the border must open to drive down soaring U.S. beef prices, before consumers start buying other meats, such as chicken or pork.
Alberta Agriculture Minister Doug Horner says he expects this latest BSE discovery in the U.S. may have an impact on the court case, since part of R-CALF's argument was that Canadian cattle would expose U.S. herds to BSE.
As more BSE testing is conducted, more cases are expected in both Canada and the U.S. By mid-June, Canada had tested more than 32,000 animals, exceeding its target of 30,000 for the year. The U.S. tests about 300,000 a year. It is believed BSE made its way into North America through imports of live cattle and contaminated feed.
In Alberta, the beef industry has survived on government bailout programs and by increasing domestic slaughter capacity more than 30 per cent over the last two years.
Meanwhile, next week's livestock event in Calgary will focus on industry competitiveness by examining current export leaders, as well as political and industry infrastructures in such countries as Canada, U.S., Mexico, Australia, New Zealand and Uruguay.
Topics will explore the future of agriculture, beef industry issues, consumer demands and the global beef marketplace.
Speakers include Steven Blank, an extension economist in the University of California's agricultural and resource economics department; Eduardo Blasina, an agronomist and founder of Blasina & Tardaguila Consultores Asociados, an agriculture market analysis company in Uruguay; and Bill Rupp, president of Excel Beef and executive vice-president of Cargill Meat Solutions.
As the Congress addresses its theme of The New World Of Beef, much of the hallway talk is expected to focus on Canada and U.S. relations, as the U.S. now finds itself delivering the same message to its public about beef safety that Canada delivered two years ago.
"We've had two years to move forward," Haney says. "They're just starting."
(Wendy Dudley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)