To test or not to test— that is the BSE question

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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March 19, 2004: Fifty students have enrolled in the University of Connecticut's newest class - a one-credit course: "Cows: Mad and Otherwise." It deals with the science of BSE and the big picture issues of politics, economics, health and sociology. The course text is Philip Yam's book, "The Pathological Protein: Mad Cow, Chronic Wasting and Other Deadly Prion Diseases." L. Cameron Faustman, head of the animal science department, started the class because, "It was a very contemporary issue that is multifaceted."

Right, BSE is multifaceted and a conundrum.

Some things are obvious - just not easy. There is no substitute for modifying the World Organization for Animal Health's ad hoc guidelines designed to deal with an outbreak of epidemic proportions in the U.K. We need binding international rules that make sense for countries with an incidental occurrence of BSE.

The Canadian cattle herd needs to shrink. Instead it is growing. Destroying healthy animals is a public relations nightmare. Donating livestock meat to food banks or low-income countries is out. All hook spaces in our slaughtering facilities are needed for those animals with a chance of providing some return to cattlemen. Canada's livestock identification system needs improvement but that is cost to the system. There are no benefits until the next infectious disease hits.

Some things are worth doing - even though they are only band-aids. The latest Cull Animal Program, a one-time, per-head payment to producers, is a worthy attempt to increase the rate of slaughter of cull animals. In due time, the Canada Agricultural Income Stabilization program will shore up farmer income, but the problem remains.

Some things will clearly help - it just won't be enough. Expanding the slaughter of cull cattle is an excellent place for government investment. Entrepreneurs upgrading slaughter capacity will need very creative farmer loyalty programs to survive the rising Canadian dollar and the return of competition once border trade normalizes. We need to develop a whole herd buyout program. The Americans have used buyouts to manage milk production. Buying out whole herds of beef cows has an excellent chance of shrinking the national herd.

Finally, should we test more cattle for BSE? Our best science says; take the risky material out of the food and feed chain and there is no risk. I accept that the evidence leads to this scientific conclusion, but marketing beef is not about science. I'm with Cameron Faustman at the University of Connecticut. He is teaching the science of BSE but will spend just as much time, if not more, on politics, economics, health and sociology. BSE is multifaceted. If Japan commits to opening their market if we test all animals destined for their market , we should test a.s.a.p

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For the course posting visit: www.canr.uconn.edu/ansci/298.pdf <http://www.canr.uconn.edu/ansci/298.pdf>.



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