Letter from Saskatchewan
Mad cow troubles resurface with a vengeance
The finding of an infected cow in Washington States has done little to alleviate Canadian cattlemen’s worries or market woes

By Paul Beingessner

Meet Paul

Saskatchewan farmer Paul Beingessner has missed only a handful of deadlines in writing a weekly column during the past eight years. He covers Canadian agriculture from a High Plains perspective. His straight-talk style informs readers about corporate influence in national and international agriculture, national ag politics on both sides of the border, and why some farmers do the things they do. Click here for more information about Paul.

TRUAX, Saskatchewan, Canada, January 14, 2004: Oh, the roller-coaster ride from the depths of despair to the height of hope, only to plunge back into despair. The way I figure it, we were about half way up the hill of that roller coaster, when the whole thing came off the rails.

The news just before Christmas that a case of mad cow disease, bovine spongiform encephalopathy, had been discovered in a cow in Washington State brought a smile, or at least a grimace of relief to Canadian farmers. While few farmers in Canada would wish any ill to their American counterparts, it is likely that some were relieved that American farmers were now walking a mile in our workboots.

Some Canadian agriculture columnists even fantasized about how they would gently taunt groups like R-CALF USA which had demanded a ban on imports of Canadian beef for seven years following the discovery last May of the single case of BSE in Canada. How could they now ask other countries to accept American beef under similar circumstances?

The tentative smiles were wiped off Canadian faces when the U.S. claimed, and DNA testing ultimately proved that the infected cow had in fact come from the province of Alberta in Canada. It was like a blow to a gut when you least expect it, a fitting end to a year that knocked all the wind out of Canada's agriculture sector.

Now that the worst fears of Canadian farmers are confirmed, we will be back to fighting fires on many fronts. So, just in case, perhaps a refresher on some of the facts of BSE is in order.

Most important for the consumer of beef is the fact that the risk of contracting variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease from eating Canadian or American beef is so small as to be unmeasurable. This is true, even after the discovery of a case of BSE in each country. In Great Britain, where it is estimated about 2 million cows with BSE were consumed, there were around 150 cases of vCJD in humans over 17 years. The spontaneous form of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, the one not linked to consumption of beef or anything else, claimed over 1,000 Brits in the same time period. It also was found in about 500 Canadians and 5,000 Americans. (And I'm willing to bet that before mad cow became a national crisis, you never even heard of CJD.)

Canadian consumers appear to have understood the insignificance of the health risk. Beef consumption rose in this country after our single case was discovered. It was one piece of evidence that common sense is still, occasionally, common.

The second fact, of less concern to consumers but still worthy of note, is that the accepted theory on the transmission of BSE to cows is still only a theory. That theory says BSE is caused by cattle consuming the rendered remains of other, infected cows. In reality, few experiments have actually been done to test that hypothesis, and those I am aware of were unable to transmit it at all in this fashion.

The third fact is that we still have not solved the problem of trade rules that punish countries in Canada's position. Under WTO rules, we must continue to allow certain levels of beef imports, even while other countries will not accept our exports. The WTO rules must be changed to free us of this obligation and allow us to deal with our beef dilemma.

Lastly, we are in a bad position because we gave up our capacity to kill and process our cull cows and bulls to the U.S. This has happened because the meat packing industry is now in the hands of a tiny group of transnational corporations that do not worry about borders. The reality for farmers is that borders do exist. If there is a way to reclaim and decentralize the meat packing industry, we need to find it, and we may need some help from governments to do this. Decentralization of the industry would increase competition, reduce the potential for massive recalls of meat and the resulting black eyes for the industry, reduce imports and create jobs. Cattle producers should be asking for the government's timetable and agenda for tackling these issues.

Now that we know the cow was born in Canada, Canadian farmers are still not sure what the impact will be. Some are speculating that it is a better situation than if the cow had been born in the U.S. This way, Japan and other importers of American beef may resume those imports, leaving some room in the U.S. market that could be filled by Canadian cattle if the U.S. decides to open the border.

If America is unable to export its normal level of 10% of the beef it produces, it is unlikely to want any imports. Though trade rules obligate the U.S. to allow certain levels of imports, the American government is not overly zealous in living up to these commitments.

© Paul Beingessner, beingessner@sasktel.net . The author is a columnist, transportation consultant and third-generation farmer in Truax, Saskatchewan.