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Mad Cow woes resurface with a vengeance

by Paul Beingessner
Canadian farmer, writer

(Wednesday, Dec. 31, 2003 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- 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 last week 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, as the week ended, that the infected cow had in fact come from 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.

Of course, Canadian officials were quick to counter that all the evidence had not yet been assessed, and demanded DNA testing to assure that the cow in question really did originate in Alberta.

That testing will take about a week to accomplish, so, for the week, Canadian farmers will be on pins and needles. If the cow is indeed Canadian, well, no one in Canada is even willing to speculate at this point on just how bad that will be for us.

But, if 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. We cannot afford to let this slide.

(c) Paul Beingessner (306) 868-4734 phone 868-2009 fax beingessner@sasktel.net