U.S. Outbreak of BSE Might Help Canadian Beef Producers

THE TIMING could scarcely have been worse. For seven months, Canada's beef industry reeled from the body blow delivered on May 20 when a six-year-old Angus breeder cow in northern Alberta was diagnosed with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), better known as mad cow disease.

U.S. Outbreak of BSE Might Help Canadian Beef Producers

THE TIMING could scarcely have been worse. For seven months, Canada's beef industry reeled from the body blow delivered on May 20 when a six-year-old Angus breeder cow in northern Alberta was diagnosed with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), better known as mad cow disease. Nearly 30 countries, including the United States, sealed their borders to Canadian beef, resulting in an estimated $1.6 billion in lost export sales. Still, as the new year approached, Canadian cattlemen had reason to be guardedly optimistic. The U.S., which normally accounts for 77 per cent of all Canadian beef exports, had already agreed to accept some boneless meat cuts from cattle under 30 months of age - animals considered too young to contract BSE. The Americans were also expected to remove, by early 2004, a ban on shipping young, live cattle - a crucial step in getting Canada's $7.6-billion-a-year beef industry back on its feet.

But then the other hoof dropped. On Dec. 23, U.S. officials announced that a Holstein cow in Washington state had tested positive for BSE. Suddenly, the U.S. was slapped with sweeping export bans by several of its top trading partners, including Japan, South Korea and Mexico. (Ottawa opted for a partial ban, far less restrictive than the one the U.S. continues to place on Canada.) Compounding matters, U.S. officials soon claimed the diseased cow was likely born on an Edmonton-area farm in April 1997 (conclusive DNA results were expected by early this week). Moreover, it was possible the cow became infected by eating feed made with parts of cud-chewing animals, including brains. Such feed practices were outlawed in North America in August 1997, after they led to a major BSE outbreak in Britain. At the time, more than 130 Britons had contracted a new variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease - a usually fatal brain illness believed to be caused by human consumption of foods made from BSE-infected cow parts.

With prices again plunging and U.S. producers' groups clamouring to extend the ban on live cattle, Canadian cattlemen girded for a bleak new year. But amid the deep clouds of uncertainty, a few silver linings can be glimpsed - including the possibility the U.S. woes may ultimately give Canada the leverage to get its borders re-opened.

How so? For one thing, the Americans can no longer adopt a holier-than-thou attitude. Privately, Canadian officials have been warning their U.S. counterparts since May that "if it can happen here, it can happen there." Now, it has. Finding that the latest mad cow was of Canadian origin and infected prior to the tainted feed ban could help the U.S. convince some trading partners to relax, or even remove, their export bans. But given that, until recently, hundreds of thousands of cattle freely moved across the border, it's clear U.S. beef producers are as vulnerable to BSE outbreaks as their neighbours to the north.

Recent days also demonstrated that, if anything, efforts to police BSE have been more lax in the United States. Canada instituted a national identification system for tracking cattle nearly two years ago; the U.S. did so only last week. In May, Alberta's diseased breeder cow was kept out of the food chain after an inspector noticed it looked underweight and deemed it to be suffering from pneumonia and thus unfit for human consumption (routine tests later detected the presence of BSE). The Mabton, Wash., Holstein was also a "downer" - an animal unable to walk on its own - but, this time, some of the slaughtered meat got shipped to several states before the BSE diagnosis was made (the meat was later recalled).

Last week, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman announced several new public health and surveillance measures that mirror steps already undertaken by Canada. In addition to the new national tracking system, Veneman prohibited brain and nervous system tissues - known to harbour BSE - from older animals from entering the food supply. There are also indications the U.S. and Canada may move, in unison, to ensure rendered remains of cattle do not end up, as they now can, in the feed of other farm animals, such as pigs and chickens, increasing the risk they could be passed back into cattle feed.

Alberta Beef Producers chairman Arno Doerksen is encouraged that U.S officials are finally recognizing BSE is a North American problem, not a just Canadian one. "We've been saying all along that what we have here is a deeply integrated market and we have to work together on this," he says. Doerksen, who operates a cow/calf and feedlot operation about 140 km east of Calgary, adds that it might be difficult for Americans to justify maintaining a ban on Canadian beef while asking other trading partners to lift their prohibition on U.S. beef.

A challenge for authorities on both sides of the border is the issue of consumer confidence. After the initial scare, the official mantra became that it was "one lone cow" - an isolated incident that posed no public health risk. But now there are at least two mad cows, and there could be many more out there as yet undetected. How many more? David Westaway, a microbiologist at the University of Toronto's neurodegenerative disease centre, thinks it could number in the hundreds. We simply don't know, says Westaway, because of what he sees as a woefully inadequate level of BSE testing: while European nations test about one animal in four taken to slaughter, the ratio in Canada has traditionally been more like one in 1,000, and even less in the U.S.

Westaway told Maclean's last week he's baffled why there isn't more testing, especially when it can be done for as little as $20 an animal. "Some people genuinely believe the disease isn't there, while others think testing costs too much," he says. "The least charitable view is that, if one doesn't do a lot of testing, one isn't going to get unpleasant surprises." If that's indeed the rationale, recent events suggest it may be backfiring.

See also BEEF CATTLE FARMING.

Maclean's January 12, 2004