THE discovery of bovine spongiform encephalopathy in one cow within the Canadian beef herd is nothing short of a crisis. The cattle industry is losing a staggering $5 million to $11 million per day through export restrictions and lost commerce. Repercussions from the discovery reverberate in other parts of the economy.
Few heard the news May 20 without recalling the panic that ensued when the full story on BSE in Great Britain was understood some 10 years ago.
Now, 10 days into our own animal health crisis, there is little sign of consumer panic and every sign that governments and industry groups are taking a no-holds-barred approach to finding the cause and then implementing preventive measures.
That approach is absolutely critical to the cattle industry’s eventual recovery of markets and reputation.
An announcement only hours after BSE test confirmation, by both the federal and Alberta agriculture ministers, provided a needed sense of assertion, responsibility and direction in early days. Officials from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency seem to be forthcoming with information.
Frequent media updates have so far kept the public abreast of the investigation’s progress. Cattle industry officials have fanned out to address international customer fears and news junkies have been virtually inundated with information on the disease.
News clips of the prime minister eating steak were almost enough to distract from repeated images of the ubiquitous “mad cow” in Britain – the one shown staggering around a manure-caked enclosure in the severe stages of illness seldom seen even where BSE is a major problem.
As the investigation continues, more farms are being quarantined – a sign of research progress rather than disease spread. That distinction has also been carefully made by the CFIA.
The time for finger-pointing will come after the investigation is complete, but we can be sure of one thing now: Canadian ranching changed forever on May 20.
What does the future hold when the BSE source is found and the industry is in recovery mode? We already know lack of detailed cattle records delayed CFIA investigators. The industry will be looking for ways to address that. It’s also reasonable to expect more fines and higher compliance with the national cattle identification strategy.
And those environmental and food safety plans that are painted in broad strokes within the new federal agricultural policy framework? Expect rules about them to be implemented sooner rather than later. Feed regulations, rendering processes and disease testing timelines are also likely to face review.
Discovery of a BSE case within our border is the nightmare dreaded by everyone associated with the cattle industry. Confronting it openly and forcefully is the only way to handle it.