BSE, North American Style
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And, while the closing of the US Canada border to beef and cattle movement may have made sense in terms of economic hygiene for the Americans, some logic was lacking in animal health terms.
In any event, the US was sufficiently comfortable to begin the process of opening its border to Canadian beef and cattle in August after not much more than three months of exhaustive investigation and precautions by the Canadians. The processing of opening up trade started with boxed beef, but was expected to include live cattle shipments some time in the new year.
A high degree of trust between the two countries was evident, particularly as the Canadian assessment placed the north western US to be at more risk than eastern Canada. This is, of course, in marked contrast to the situation in the European Union where member states seem to have little trust of one another. But perhaps in view of the political scandals surrounding BSE in Europe this is hardly surprising.
The recent case of BSE in Washington state in a four-year-old dairy cow which may have been imported from Canada some years ago, however, will clearly challenge the relationship. And, even if the animal was not imported from Canada, the reality is that significant numbers of cattle
The closure of the US border to Canadian cattle and beef had a devastating impact on the Canadian industry with slaughter cattle prices falling by as much as 60 percent. But this appears to have been a matter of a loss of the US market to Canada, rather than any loss of confidence in beef at the retail counter. This was largely confirmed by the recovery of Canadian prices as soon as the Americans began to open the border.
While Canadian prices still have some way to go to recover their traditional relationship with US market, the worse certainly seemed to be behind the Canadians.
Corresponding to the closure of the border to Canadian cattle and beef, the resulting cut in US beef supply has resulted in record prices for some months. While the US is a net importer of beef, about 10 percent of its supplies find lucrative niche markets spread around the world. And the loss of these markets has certainly taken the steam out of a very hot US beef market which has risen by as much as 35 percent since the Canadian case of BSE was discovered.
Interestingly, however, there seems to have been little hysteria amongst the consuming public. Share prices in hamburger and steak house restaurant chains, the first indicator of public concern, hardly reacted with any concern over consumer reaction being offset by the anticipation of improved sales and profit resulting from lower beef prices.
Only time will tell whether this is because the North American public are better informed, their press and media less inclined to hysteria, politicians and the food system they are responsible for more trusted, or the incident to date is so minor as to be dismissed.
The potential for further cases of BSE is not clear. The Canadian incident, in a beef cow raised on the Canadian prairies which under normal circumstances would not have been expected to come in contact with meat and bone meal the only known means of transmission.
A Canadian Food Inspection Agency assessment seemed to imply that the least impossible explanation was that the animal had pick up the infection from a high energy feed block used to supplement pasture grazing or conventional feed, in 1997 immediately prior to the Canadian ban on feeding meat and bone meal to ruminants.
The infection of the feed could have been from an undetected case of BSE in an animal imported for breeding purposes from the UK 15 or more years ago. The implication of this was that, as the cow was relatively old when it succumbed and very young when the partial MBM ban was imposed, further cases from this origin would be few.
The US case of a four-year-old cow, whether it was infected in Canada or the US, creates a new dimension as it was born after the partial MBM ban in both countries. There is a range of logical explanations for this which will no doubts be identified by US or Canadian authorities.
Of over riding importance, however, is that every effort is made to prevent any infection from BSE animals entering either the human food or livestock feed chains. And here the authorities are very dependent on the diligence and integrity of cattle producers.
The most effective way of doing this would be to provide a bounty of several time its market value for any animal diagnosed with BSE and to discontinue the whole herd slaughter policy.
In the case of the former the low incidence of BSE means that it would not be costly and the issue of moral hazard minor as sources of infection would be hard to come by and, because of the very slow "incubation" of the disease, any payback would be very slow.
The case for a whole herd slaughter policy rests almost entirely on public confidence even though the only know source of infection is through feed. This was something never really understood or believed by consumers in Europe. But by slaughtering only infected animals but monitoring others in the implicated herd, the most dreaded implication for any farmer or rancher who thinks he might have a BSE infected animal, the loss of his herd and livelihood, is eliminated. .
But the prospects of the fence posts and telegraph poles across the Canadian Prairies and the US High Plains being decorated with hand bills proclaiming:
Dead or Alive!
is perhaps a little far fetched.David Walker
December 30, 2003
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