Nearly four months have passed since the discovery of a solitary case of mad cow disease threw Canada's beef business into turmoil, and what has changed? When it comes to the rules aimed at preventing the spread of bovine spongiform encephalopathy through tainted cattle feed, the answer is: nothing. The regulations that were in place before the crisis remain unrevised, even though federal officials admit they are clearly outdated. In June, an international team of experts asked by Ottawa to study the system proposed key reforms, and Agriculture Minister Lyle Vanclief and Health Minister Anne McLellan promised a quick response. But as of last week, federal officials would only say that the panel's recommendations are still being mulled over - and the government refuses to be pushed into setting a timetable for action.
The go-slow approach might be unsurprising if Canada's existing safeguards were considered good enough. The main one is a ban on feeding the rendered remains of cows, sheep and other ruminants to, well, cows, sheep and other ruminants. After that unnatural diet was found to be at the root of Britain's BSE epidemic, Canada and the U.S. moved together to outlaw the practice in 1997. Bone and meat meal made from cattle, however, is still allowed to be mixed into feed meant for other farm animals, such as pigs and chickens. That raises the possibility of feeds getting mixed up - a serious risk flagged by both the international panel and the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization. But in 1997, when the regulations were put in place, along with an inspection regime to enforce them, BSE was still considered a remote risk in North America. "Now we're having to deal with a real-life finding," Sergio Tolusso, feed program coordinator for the federal Canadian Food Inspection Agency, told Maclean's. "So we have to revisit what we're doing and perhaps make some changes."
As well, Canada has not yet acted on the panel's call for a total ban on the use of so-called specified risk materials in all animal feeds, such as bovine spinal cords and brains, the body parts most likely to be infected with BSE. (Ottawa banned such high-risk material this summer from human food products.)
Farmers, feed makers and government officials are quick to claim that the risk of cross-contamination is small. But the margin of error when it comes to mad cow disease has to be exceedingly slim - given the economic havoc wreaked by just one case. And the current rules are not always being followed. About 600 feed plants and 30 renderers are inspected once a year by Tolusso's agency. He said that in 2001-2002, the latest figures available, three per cent of the feed plants inspected were not in compliance with the ruminant feed restrictions. "We haven't found any cases of complete lack of control where people are willfully putting the wrong things in the wrong place," he said. What sorts of violations are being discovered, then? Tolusso puts it this way: "There's human errors, there's oversights, and there's perhaps a lack of understanding on the industry's part of what the expectations are."
Nor does the feed industry know what to expect next. "Frankly, we're really not sure what direction the government wants to take," said Christine Mercier, general manager of the Animal Nutrition Association of Canada, which represents feed companies. As for the cattle farmers, their umbrella group, the Canadian Cattlemen's Association, argues the expert panel's recommendations would raise costs unnecessarily, and is pleased Ottawa hasn't moved yet to implement them. "We're satisfied that they're not jumping too far ahead," said Rob McNabb, the association's assistant manager. He urges Ottawa not to tighten feed rules except in coordination with the United States. And with cattle producers resisting tougher regulations, federal politicians are sticking with the ones their own officials admit need to be overhauled.
THE FARMERS GAMBLE: Is it better to sell cattle at a loss or keep them?
AUTUMN is a pivotal season for the cattle industry. It's when cow/calf operators usually ship most of their young animals to feedlots, to be raised to market weight, then sold again to processors. It's also the time when many ranchers look to "cull" - the industry's polite term for slaughter - breeding cattle more than 30 months old to make room for younger animals. But this fall, the traditional rhythms have been rent asunder by the fallout over one mad cow discovered in Alberta on May 20. With the crucial American market still shut tight against all live cattle exports as well as meat products from older animals, Canadian cattle prices are half of what they were just four months ago. Producers face an unpalatable choice: either dispense with their cattle now at fire-sale prices or try to wait out the border closure and incur the costs of keeping their animals alive through the winter.
Canada's beef industry has lost an estimated $11 million a day in export sales since 34 countries sealed their borders in May. A hint of relief came in August when the United States and Mexico, Canada's two largest customers, agreed to accept boneless meat cuts from cattle under 30 months of age - animals considered too young to contract mad cow disease. But the continuing ban on live animals is punishing: in 2002, Canada exported $1.8 billion worth of live cattle, almost all of it to the U.S. Meanwhile, the shunning of older cows threatens to create further backlogs in the production cycle.
In response, some farm groups are pressing for a government-subsidized slaughter of more than 600,000 older cattle; in a worst-case scenario, some carcasses would simply be buried. But both the Canadian Cattlemen's Association and the Alberta Beef Producers, which together represent more than 100,000 cattle operators, reject that approach. Among other things, they fear the public would recoil at the image of mass cattle graves.
With export bans likely to stay in effect for several more months, keeping the support of domestic customers is a top industry priority. When Britain and Japan suffered mad cow outbreaks, consumers responded by dramatically cutting back on beef. By contrast, Canadians, apparently convinced their beef remains safe to eat, purchased 62 per cent more burgers, steaks and roasts this July than in the same month last year. Without that vote of confidence, says Ron Axelson, general manager of the Alberta Cattle Feeders' Association, "this industry would be dead by now."
Maclean's September 22, 2003