Brazil’s BSE case reminder of earlier Canadian crisis

It’s like a rude flashback: a major beef exporting country discovers one case of BSE. Other countries close their borders to beef imports from that country. The world animal health organization gets involved. Diplomatic missions are launched to defend the country’s animal health and food integrity.

Canada in 2003? Nope. The above refers to Brazil in 2012. December 2012, in fact, and two years after the cow showing evidence of BSE was dead and buried.

Canada can look with envy upon the muted world response to Brazil’s discovery of the brain-wasting bovine illness in a 13-year-old cow that never entered the food chain.

Nearly 10 years ago, a similar discovery in this country began a firestorm of border closures, cattle price collapse, bankruptcies, criticism of foreign trade dependency and mandated removal of specified risk materials, from which the cattle industry has yet to fully recover.

Had Brazil found its case 10 years ago, it could have faced similar blowback. It is the world’s largest beef exporter, whose top customers include Russia, Hong Kong and Egypt.

As it stands, at least eight of Brazil’s numerous export markets, most of them minor, have imposed full or partial bans on beef but none of its top three, which account for nearly half its total export volume.

There are good reasons for that. The pasture-fed cow in question did not die of BSE, according to officials. Tests showed the presence of prions that might have led to its eventual development of the disease, making it an atypical case unrelated to feed.

Less easily explained is the two-year time lag between the cow’s death and the revelation that it harboured BSE-inducing proteins. Brazilian officials blame overload in testing labs and rules that gave low priority to that particular sample and diagnosis.

This does not foster confidence in Brazil’s system.

With typical hyperbole that gave short shrift to the facts of the case, the U.S.-based R-CALF called for an immediate American ban of cattle and beef from Brazil.

It noted that 67 million pounds of Brazilian beef had entered the U.S. between the time the cow died and the time Brazil announced the positive test.

However, R-CALF made an interesting point within its diatribe: can we expect developing countries to have the same means, commitment and capabilities as developed countries to control and eradicate disease?

The World Organization for Animal Health has indicated Brazil will retain its high safety rating of negligible risk for BSE. It apparently has confidence in the country’s feeding and testing systems.

Canada and the United States, with all their safeguards, retain the designation of controlled risk for BSE. Developed countries are held to a higher standard in such matters, it seems.

While Canada can be envious of Brazil’s treatment in the international court of opinion on BSE, it can also take comfort in what appears to be a more rational approach to the disease.

In the past 10 years, scientists have determined what they believe to be the cause of typical BSE. Steps have been taken to prevent it. Initial fears that BSE would lead to mass deaths from its human equivalent, Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, were unfounded.

Time has indeed calmed the near-hysteria that Canada has had to deal with since May 2003.

There is no satisfaction in learning that BSE could potentially have affected another beef exporting nation, but what a difference 10 years has made in international attitudes toward this disease.

Canada, with its stringent control measures and “boy scout” role in addressing BSE, can take some of the credit for the world’s more reasoned approach.

Bruce Dyck, Terry Fries, Barb Glen, D’Arce McMillan and Joanne Paulson collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.