May 30, 2003: Rene
Descartes, 17th Century French philosopher, convinced himself
of his own existence when he said, "I think, therefore
I am". Good thing he didn't say "I think logically,
therefore I am". If that were the case, most humans today
would have trouble proving their reality. At least, it appears
that way in the aftermath of the Mad Cow scare in Canada.
Reaction by the general public has been a textbook case in
||"Good thing [Descartes] didn't
say "I think logically, therefore I am". If
that were the case, most humans today would have trouble
proving their reality. At least, it appears that way in
the aftermath of the Mad Cow scare in Canada. "
Most of this irrationality revolves around our perception
of, and reaction to, risk. Are Canadians at risk because one
cow out of the 15 million in the country had Bovine Spongiform
Encephalopathy (BSE)? No scientist would say an absolute no
to that question, but what is the level of that risk? In Great
Britain, it is estimated that between 2 and 3 million cows
with BSE were fed to the population before the link to variant
Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD) was discovered.
In the 10 of so years since, there have been 130 cases of
vCJD among the 60 million people in the country. When this
all began, some scientists predicted there would be millions
of cases. Not are there likely to be many more, despite the
long incubation period for the disease. The number of new
cases each year is falling off rapidly.
The regular form of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, called sporadic
CJD, affects about 60 people each year in Britain. This is
not caused by eating anything, as near as scientists can tell.
They suspect it is caused by a spontaneous mutation in the
Obviously then, even if there are barns full of BSE infected
cows out there, the risk to Canadians, or North Americans,
were they all to be eaten, would still be small beyond imagining.
I am more likely to be killed by my computer monitor exploding
as I write this.
All of which simply proves that people are seldom afflicted
by fits of logic. But, given this reality, the important question
is how farmers, scientists and governments should react to
Mad Cow Disease. The starting point is to assume that perception,
unfortunately, is reality. Telling the customer he is wrong
won't get you far.
|"We should start with a ban on
the feeding of sick animals, or any kind of animal, to
other animals that we are going to eat. While there may
be a ban on feeding cows to cows, there is no ban on feeding
cows to pigs or pigs to cows. This may be scientifically
sound, or it may not, but to the urban consumer, it is
a revolting idea."
If Canada is to recover from this economic nightmare, we
have to do the right things, and even more importantly, be
seen to be doing the right things. To this point, the short-term
response has been pretty good. The infected cow and her offspring
have been tracked across three provinces and at least one
state, and thousands of her herdmates have been destroyed
and tested. There have been no further positives. While this
has been devastating for the individual farmers involved,
the ruthlessness of it is still comforting. A team of international
scientists has commended Canada's response.
A further positive has been the openness of government in
dispensing information during the crisis. Any hint of evasion
would have been harmful. Nevertheless, Canada's longer-term
response remains uncertain.
We should start with a ban on the feeding of sick animals,
or any kind of animal, to other animals that we are going
to eat. While there may be a ban on feeding cows to cows,
there is no ban on feeding cows to pigs or pigs to cows. This
may be scientifically sound, or it may not, but to the urban
consumer, who now knows, it is a revolting idea.
Lyle Vanclief, Canada's Agriculture Minister, was wrong,
of course, when he insisted the BSE cow had not entered the
food chain. She simply took the alternate route of going through
a chicken. The optics of this are neither good nor appetizing.
Second, we need a recommitment to inspection in the food
industry. The biggest threat to life from eating meat is not
BSE. It is E.coli contamination caused by unsafe practices
in packing plants. (Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta
estimates 73,000 illnesses and 61 deaths per year in the U.S.,
mostly from contaminated hamburger.) Governments in Canada
and the U.S. have increasingly moved towards self-inspection
in the meat packing industry. HACCP, or Hazard Analysis and
Critical Control Point, is the fancy name for letting industry
In the U.S., HACCP has meant that instead of inspecting each
carcass as it moves down the production line, federal meat
inspectors are now supposed to monitor how well the company
is implementing its HACCP program. The General Accounting
Office in the U.S. reported last year that 44 of the 47 packing
plants it examined had food safety programs that "failed
to meet regulatory requirements".
||"Governments in Canada and the
U.S. have increasingly moved towards self-inspection in
the meat packing industry. HACCP, or Hazard Analysis and
Critical Control Point, is the fancy name for letting
industry police itself. "
In the long run, a thorough examination of Canada's meat
industry could do a lot of good. BSE may even turn out to
be a blessing in disguise. If our politicians take this issue
seriously, we might get to be the "best in the world"
as they so often claim we already are.
Despite the gravity of this subject, there were at least
a few moments of humor. Having all those urban people talking
about cows gives farmers a rare chance to feel smugly superior.
Like the radio host in Saskatchewan who innocently inquired
if the eight-year-old cow was likely to have had any calves.
No, sir, she hasn't even hit puberty yet…