When it comes to food trade,
consumers trump sound science

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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May 18, 2004: “I want to get this issue solved as quickly as possible,” U. S. President George W. Bush told a press conference last week after his meeting with Paul Martin, our Prime Minister. Bush was well scripted: he flagged the importance of two-way cattle trade and the need to make decisions based on sound science.

But, it was a script about the past rather than the emerging future.

Two cows -- one in Canada, one in the U.S. -- sick with mad cow disease, are rewriting the underpinnings of international trade in food. Those who assume that decisions based on science will return the international market for beef and beef products back to what we considered normal a year ago, may have a long wait ahead.

Using science as a base for international trade agreements has merit. It creates a level playing field for the various farming systems at play around the world. The majority of those systems are rooted in sound management practices and good science. Management and science are important, but they are not all that matters.

Consider beef in Great Britain. Eighteen years after their mad cow epidemic was first diagnosed, the British are still destroying all cattle over 30 months of age. From a strictly science perspective, one could propose testing all cattle over 30 months, keeping only those testing positive for BSE out of the food chain. But no, the British continue to incinerate and otherwise destroy all their older cattle.

Consider the Peace Country Tender Beef Co-op, a tiny northern Alberta beef slaughterhouse that has a commitment from Japanese officials to accept their beef with open arms, IF the co-op tests all of its cattle for mad cow disease.

Consider the order from Maple Leaf Pork, Ontario’s largest pork processor, to all its contract producers to remove meat and bone meal from market hog rations. Maple Leaf told a public hearing that they were simply responding to requests from customers in Japan -- in the shadow of one case of mad cow disease in Canada.

Consider the $500,000 investment by Kansas-based Creekstone Farms Premium Beef, in a mad cow testing lab and the hiring of seven chemists and biologists to operate it, after their manager paid a visit to Japan. He returned convinced that Japanese officials will lift their ban on American beef only if American companies adopt the Japanese practice of testing every animal.

Last week, after the U.S. and Japan set up a formal working group on the trade dispute, Japan’s Vice Agriculture Minister, Mamoru Ishihara, told reporters, "It is important not to harm the faith of consumers."

Consumers who create markets matter more than science.



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