Canadian beef exporters could be facing stiffer competition from the United States as early as this year if its BSE risk status improves, says a senior Canadian Food Inspection Agency official.
The World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) considers Canada and the U.S. to be “controlled BSE risk” countries.
However, the U.S. has met one of the main requirements to move into the “negligible BSE risk” category, which means the latest birth date for its positive BSE animals is greater than 11 years ago.
The earliest Canada can be considered for negligible BSE risk status is 2016 because two of its BSE positive cases were born in 2004.
“In all likelihood, the U.S. may qualify ahead of Canada,” said Noel Murray, senior adviser for risk management with the CFIA.
He said it could happen this year or next, and when it does the U.S. could gain a competitive advantage in its efforts to garner further access to Asian markets.
Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and China import beef from Canadian and U.S. animals only if they are younger than 30 months old.
Murray said the U.S. would have better odds of expanding access beyond those age limitations if it receives negligible BSE risk status.
Dennis Laycraft, executive vice-president of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, agreed that Canada could face stiffer competition into Asian markets if that happens.
However, he said Canada shipped 813,770 head of cattle into the U.S. in 2012 and is its largest supplier of beef products, so it wouldn’t be all bad news.
He also said the U.S. has been refused negligible BSE risk status for a number of years in a row, so there is no guarantee it will happen this year.
Even if it does occur, many key importers don’t recognize the OIE’s BSE risk classifications.
For instance, Japan considers Mexico to be a negligible risk country because it has never had a case of BSE, yet the OIE classifies Mexico as controlled risk country.
Another example is Brazil, which was recently blacklisted by a number of importers after the December 2012 discovery of an atypical BSE case despite maintaining its OIE rating as a negligible risk country.
Laycraft said market access has a lot more to do with politics than international rating systems.
“What happens, as you just saw in Brazil’s case, is you get thrown in the penalty box for doing the right thing,” he said.
Other key competitors, such as Argentina, Australia and New Zealand, have achieved negligible BSE risk status. Murray expects Japan will join the list over the next year or two as well as some European countries.
He said it is important for Canada to continue to strive to get on that list.
“There is enough (competitive) challenges as it is without being constrained by the legacy of BSE. So in my mind, it would be important to work towards achieving negligible BSE status,” said Murray.
One of the keys for getting on that list is for Canada to show the world that it is serious about maintaining a robust BSE surveillance program.
Murray said there have been some concerning developments in that regard.
During its peak in 2006 and 2007, Canada’s surveillance program was testing 55,000 cattle a year for BSE. Last year the program sampled less than half that amount. Sampling has dropped below the target of 30,000 animals per year.
Murray said the precipitous decline in BSE testing hasn’t reached “mission critical” status but it has become a worrisome development.
“We need to nip it in the bud,” he said.
If the numbers continue to slide, it will put Canada in a difficult position with its trading partners.
“We could say we haven’t had any BSE cases, but then the accusation would be ‘you’re not looking’,” said Murray.
A working group called CanSurvBSE has been established to ensure that doesn’t happen.
It will start tackling the issue of declining surveillance testing in the next week or so.