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From: TSS (
Subject: Canadian cattle industry is playing with fire, TIME FOR MANDATORY BSE TESTS
Date: September 30, 2004 at 11:22 am PST

Time for mandatory BSE tests

Sylvain Charlebois, Toronto Star

The Canadian cattle industry is playing with fire.

The producers are lagging behind in meeting the target of 8,000 cattle tested for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) by the end of this year, a target set by the federal government less than a year ago.

In Alberta alone, only 1,000 cattle have been tested for "mad cow disease," which is only 37 per cent of the target set for the province. Without radical adjustments to its testing policies, the Canadian beef industry will be unable to show its international trading partners that it can properly appraise risks correlated with food safety.

Evidently, producers are reluctant to send more cattle for testing, as they may end up finding a new case, thereby summoning further confusion and disaster to an already complicated issue. Producers are, moreover, discouraged from making set targets a priority because they now pay rendering organizations to transport the cattle or their carcasses. The current policies on BSE testing are ambiguous, strategically ineffective, and do everything but engage marketing empowerment for the cattle producers.

The current system does not offer comforting results, and very little is inhibited by governmental authorities. To meet these targets, BSE testing should be mandatory.

However, not only should testing be mandatory, but it has to be properly implemented.

Of all the stakeholders involved in the mad cow crisis, the federal government is the one that needs to financially support the industry in order to match global standards in food safety. Japan, which just recently discovered its 12th BSE case since 2001, tests all cattle, with no exceptions, and the Japanese government fully supports its industry. The case was diagnosed only five days after it was sent to slaughter.

In Canada, it took almost four months, from the time the ailing animal in Alberta was slaughtered on Jan. 30, 2003, until the actual BSE test on May 16. At the time, only some animals that showed visual symptoms of illness were tested, as evidenced by the fact that the Alberta cow was initially diagnosed as having pneumonia and was put down before entering the food chain.

Four-month impediments have proven not to be a very persuasive tool for convincing scrupulous food-safety-aware nations like Japan, formerly one of our most important foreign trading partners for beef related products, that Canadian beef is safe.

The federal government has enhanced testing standards for BSE, beginning in the spring, by augmenting the number of tests to 8,000 in 2004 and 30,000 in 2005. Unfortunately, as pointed out, the industry is nowhere near these targets, which are considered by many observers to be very low.

Financially, cattle producers are stretched to the limit and cannot afford supplementary operating costs. The industry needs an inclusive system that will work for both producers and foreign trading partners. A change in the current testing policies from the federal government is needed to make a workable testing strategy that will re-establish the industry's integrity.

Most industry observers would argue that mandatory testing for all cattle is futile in Canada. But many arguments can be put forward to counter the industry's perspective.

For example, scientific research is still at its embryonic stage, as we still need to learn more about the disease itself. Mandatory testing would serve as a palpable indicator that Canada takes the current outbreak very seriously.

Also, many technologies are readily available for the industry to use to assure swift and accurate testing. Four different companies in the United States offer an instrument worth $10 (U.S.) that would produce results in less than five hours. If the cost of technical staff and laboratory infrastructure are incorporated, additional costs per carcass in Canada would not exceed $50 Cdn. This is really a small price to pay to secure foreign opportunities for a struggling industry. The Canadian beef industry needs a federal government that will take the initiative in making BSE testing trustworthy.

Mandatory testing of all cattle in Canada would cost no more than $100 million (Cdn.) annually. While this is a considerable amount, it is significantly less than the billions of dollars that have been given to producers thus far in indemnity programs.

Mandatory BSE testing is needed in Canada not only to restore our credibility in terms of risk management, but also to create an opportunity for the Canadian beef industry to learn more about a disease that has relentlessly overtaken the agricultural-political agenda of many industrial nations.

Sylvain Charlebois, a food safety researcher, is an assistant professor in marketing in the faculty of administration at the University of Regina.


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