What a difference one cow makes.

Farm & Countryside Commentary by Elbert van Donkersgoed

Editor's NOTE

Elbert van Donkersgoed is the Strategic Policy Advisor of the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario, Canada. CFFO is supported by 4,500 family farmers across the province of Ontario.

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January 20, 2004: The discovery of the first cow infected with mad cow disease in the U.S. has triggered a series of regulatory changes by the United States Department of

  • banned all 'downer'' cattle from the human food chain;
  • banned high-risk head and spinal column material from the human food chain;
  • required additional process controls for a technology known as advanced meat recovery;
  • required holding meat from cattle that have been tested for BSE until the test has confirmed negative;
  • prohibited the air-injection stunning of cattle;
  • began immediate implementation of a verifiable system of national animal identification; and
  • continued an aggressive surveillance program for BSE, meaning more cattle brains will be tested for BSE.

What a difference one cow makes. On December 22, the day before the discovery of the infected cow in Washington State, proponents of these regulations would have been roundly criticized as being out of touch with sound science.

And the changes will probably escalate. Senator Tom Daschle, a Democrat from the state of South Dakota, is promoting a list of additional regulatory changes:

  • move towards testing all cattle;
  • cancel the two-year delay in mandatory country-of-origin labeling for beef and pork; and
  • re-close the border to all Canadian beef products. Daschle wants the Unites States Department of Agriculture to tell us Canadians to keep our boneless boxed beef at home.

Whatever happened to the sound science of December 22 that said none of these regulatory changes were necessary? Two things:

First, the science changed. The discovery of the first BSE-infected cow in the U.S., just as the discovery of the first in Canada, was a blinding scientific fact. In spite of an early protection system the disease got into both countries. Our level of vigilance was not enough to keep out the disease. Once here, dare we assume that existing firewalls and protection systems are enough to keep the disease from establishing itself in our cattle herds, as it did in the U.K?

Second, our American friends, with a long history of accepting that a certain amount of risk is unavoidable in daily life, found that tolerance for risk severely tested by the 9/11 tragedy at the hands of terrorists. The legal framework that assumes a product or a process is safe unless there has been some demonstration of danger still exists in the U.S. But is their heart still in it? Almost every announcement of new regulations has included the new phrase "out of an abundance of caution."

When it comes to the safety of their food, our American friends are becoming as careful and cautious and risk averse as Europeans.



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