Canada and the U.S. must harmonize their efforts in dealing with such diseases as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow, if the industries are to prosper on the global market, says Alberta Premier Ralph Klein and industry officials.
The protocol for dealing with BSE must be “modernized” to reflect sound science, Premier Klein said in a recent news conference.
Klein made the comments following the discovery of the brain-wasting disease in an American Holstein cow, which U.S. officials believe was born on a farm near Leduc in April 1997.
The diagnosis has Alberta’s $4-billion beef industry reeling, just as it was beginning to crawl back from its own BSE crisis when an Alberta cow was diagnosed with the disease seven months ago.
|Larry MacDougal, Business Edge|
|The Canadian beef industry was just starting to recover when a new case of mad cow disease was discovered in the U.S.|
Officials were working last week to confirm the birthplace of the U.S. cow, and to determine if an Edmonton-area rendering plant owned by Vancouver-based West Coast Reduction was the possible source of contaminated feed eaten by both BSE-infected animals.
Results of DNA testing were expected to be released earlier this week.
“This has sent a real chill through the industry,” said Erik Butters, finance chair for the Alberta Beef Producers.
Mad cow protocol was established during the 1980s, when Britain suffered a mad cow crisis and it was feared hundreds of people would die from eating the infected meat. The protocol, such as enforcing complete border closures, has not been changed since those days, even though the risk of people contracting the variant form of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, linked with eating BSE-infected meat, isn’t as great as once thought.
“This is a North American industry and issue, not a Canadian or American one,” Klein said. “We need to revisit the protocol and base it on sound science,” not on trade barriers, he said.
Industry officials echo Klein’s sentiment, calling for a North American regulation system that would apply to feed and packing plants, identification procedures and border closures.
Unlike Canada, the U.S. does not have an identification cattle tagging system, allowing trace-backs to herd origins. “If it wasn’t for Canada, the U.S. could never have tracked that cow,” said Ron Axelson, general manager of the Cattle Feeders Association.
The infected U.S. cow had a Canadian identification tag.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture now says it will go ahead with a national livestock-tracking system that it has been developing for the last 18 months. It has also moved to ban from the meat supply the use of cattle brains, eyes, spinal cords, small intestines and other body parts linked to BSE.
In addition, the U.S. is banning mechanically separated meat in human food, and will no longer permit “downer” cattle to enter from the food supply. These are animals that are too sick or injured to stand – up to 200,000 of these animals are being processed every year in the U.S.
The risk of humans contracting BSE may be minimal, but perception remains a huge obstacle in dealing with the issue that cost Canada’s beef industry $6.3 billion and Alberta’s economy $1 billion.
After the U.S. announcement of the BSE diagnosis, shares in fast-food chains and meat-processing companies plummeted, with analysts predicting a 20-per-cent drop in U.S. beef prices over the next few weeks.
“This is not the Christmas present producers needed,” said Ben Thorlakson, chair of the Canada Beef Export Federation.
This second case of BSE comes at a time when trade in Canadian beef products was resuming, with live cattle exports to the U.S. expected to begin in March – a necessary move for the recovery of Western Canada’s beef industry, he said.
Talks were also under way with some overseas markets, with hopes they, too, would soon lift their Canadian beef bans, Thorlakson added.
This latest news has dimmed what appeared to be a light at the end of the tunnel, said Axelson. “Prices were beginning to edge up to 90 cents again,” and were expected to increase after the border opened to live cattle.
In August, there was a partial lifting of the U.S. and Mexican ban, allowing boxed boneless meat to be shipped from Canada.
“There is no scientific reason for the U.S. or Mexico to reverse their decisions,” Thorlakson said. But it is now feared the U.S. border may remain closed indefinitely to live cattle, since it will now have its own beef glut.
More than two dozen countries having banned U.S. beef, including Japan, its biggest buyer. The U.S. National Cattlemen’s Association has requested the border opening be delayed.
“The two situations are quite different,” said Axelson. “The U.S. exports less than 10 per cent of its beef, so it can eat its way through its supply. But we export 70 per cent of our beef, so there’s no way we can eat all that.”
Many beef producers were preparing to sell some of their cattle in early January to take advantage of the new tax year, said Butters. “But I doubt anyone is going to buy or sell cattle right now, because of the uncertainty. They’ll just hang onto them.”
However, some may be forced to sell at a loss, just to show their bankers they have a cash flow, he added.
Cattle prices dropped two-thirds following the first round of BSE in Alberta last May.
Whether the infected cow discovered in Washington state came from Canada or not makes little difference, since the U.S. has now lost its BSE-free status.
“The Americans are going to have to work with Canada on this,” said Butters. Prior to the live cattle ban, Alberta shipped an average of 1.6 million live cattle to the U.S., representing $1.8 billion. The province produces 40 per cent of Canada’s beef cattle.
This additional BSE case should not change how countries, including the U.S., deal with Canada and its beef, said federal Agriculture Minister Bob Speller.
Canada has a “minimal risk” BSE status, which allows for the discovery of additional BSE-infected cattle, he said. “So this second case would not change that status.”
BSE, a brain-wasting disease, is thought to be caused by cattle eating feed containing BSE-infected protein from another ruminant. Ruminant-to-ruminant feed has been banned in Canada and the U.S. since 1997, but there’s a possibility this second cow may have eaten contaminated feed just months before the ban came into effect.
Since the discovery of BSE in Alberta, Canada has introduced additional safeguards.
All risk material, including the brain and spinal cord, is now removed from the carcass during processing, and BSE testing is conducted on all cattle that die on the farm or arrive at plants unable to walk.
Also, as of January 1, the national cattle identification system has moved from a plastic eartag to radio-frequency tags that are less likely to fall off or be damaged.
Such identification allows a sick animal to be traced back to its herd of origin, and tracking of its offspring.