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
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
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, email@example.com
. The author is a columnist, transportation consultant and
third-generation farmer in Truax, Saskatchewan.