The American decision to close the border to Canadian beef after BSE was discovered was a political and protectionist move rather than food safety-related, says a former Canadian ambassador to Washington.
Frank McKenna also voices a commonly held Canadian view that BSE existed on both sides of the border even if the Americans would not admit it.
The former New Brunswick premier and farm boy who has siblings still farming in the province was appointed ambassador to the United States in 2005 when BSE was still an issue. He resigned in 2006 when the Conservatives took power in Ottawa and is now deputy chair of the TD Bank Group.
On Nov. 28, McKenna told the GrowCanada conference in Ottawa that Canadian officials in Washington shared the suspicions of many in the Canadian beef industry that the U.S. was either hiding homegrown BSE cases or was willfully blind.
“They ended up burying their problem,” he told the conference. “We ended up exposing ours.”
He did not offer specific proof in a later interview when asked if the Canadian embassy had concrete evidence of undisclosed BSE cases in the U.S., but said it was an assumption that he considers well founded.
“That was our very strong suspicion,” said McKenna.
“We really were holier-than-thou in this and the Americans took advantage of it. We had American processors on our side, but the border remained closed because it really was about protectionism and shielding their industry from competition. That was the R-CALF agenda.”
The suspicion remains in Canada.
Recently, when asked about lack of BSE evidence in the U.S., the Canadian Food Inspection Agency scientist who identified the first Canadian case at a lab in Winnipeg in May 2003 suggested the extent of American testing is part of the answer.
Stephanie Czub said 60,000 tests are done annually in Canada, while the U.S. does the same number with a herd 10 times larger.
“The answer is pretty obvious.”
McKenna said it defies logic that the U.S. would have been immune to the disease, considering the industry is so integrated.