BSE and the legacy of a national crisis

Most would agree that the discovery of BSE in Canada in May 2003 wasn’t really a food safety crisis, at least in this country.

In retrospect, it was primarily a trade crisis.

As domestic demand for beef shattered records in Canada that year, 35 countries, including the United States and Japan, overnight issued an embargo on Canadian cattle and beef. Half of Canada’s $7 billion beef industry was based on exports, and the embargo was a catastrophe.

Despite billions in compensation, many farmers went under and livelihoods were destroyed. The BSE crisis was real to the cattle industry and a passing worry for Canadian consumers, but most importantly, it was a crisis that could have been prevented.

For the world at large, the crisis began on what is now known as Black Wednesday, March 20, 1996, the day the British government admitted that there was a probable link be-tween exposure to infected meat and variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD), the human variant of BSE.

The admission resulted in the culling of millions of animals in an effort to control the disease. Unfortunately, this did not prevent the death of more than 200 people from vCJD.

The British beef industry was experiencing a complete meltdown by the end of 1996, as more than 30,000 workers in the beef sector lost their jobs. Demand for beef products across Europe dropped by more than 35 percent.

In Canada, however, no immediate measures were taken, despite the fact that the first Canadian domestic case of BSE was detected in a British-born cow in 1993, three years before Black Wednesday.

The only significant regulatory change in Canada before 2003 came in 1997 with a ban on the practice of rendering ruminants for cattle feed. However, feed containing ruminant material was still readily available on the market, and violations of the ban were reported.

The post-May 20, 2003, era brought further policy changes. Regulators prohibited the sale or import for sale of food products containing specified risk material, such as skulls and brain tissue.

The Canadian BSE surveillance system was also established to test more cases. This decision was long overdue. Indeed, some argued that it was several years too late. Implementing such a policy earlier could have resulted in significant advances in detection and preventive technology.

Diagnosis of BSE continues to be a challenge because the incubation period can last years without showing symptoms. There is virtually no way to detect the disease without examining brain tissue post mortem using neuropathological methods.

Since 2003, we have discovered new methods to detect BSE in living cattle, but none are commercially available.

Most damaging for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency was its unfounded assumptions throughout the 2003 ordeal, which significantly affected its credibility.

For example, the agency mentioned time and again that animals could not develop BSE younger than 30 months.

In Japan, which has discovered more than 30 BSE cases since 2001 and where BSE testing is compulsory, two of the country’s cases were in 21-month-old and 23-month-old animals.

The CFIA seemed concerned only about the politics of food safety, which severely limited its understanding of the scope of the crisis that was unfolding. Food safety, after all, is first and foremost a public health issue.

Looking back a decade later, it is reassuring to see that the CFIA has matured into a learning, open organization that is still committed to evidence-based rigour.

Looking at food safety from a scientific perspective, the regulator has shown it can proactively balance the economics of food safety with the concerns that modern Canadian consumers have regarding food systems in general.

The 2003 BSE crisis made the federal regulator more efficiently attuned with the realities of modern food safety practices. However, the XL Foods scandal that began in September 2012 shows there is still room for improvement.

Sylvain Charlebois is associate dean of the College of Management and Economics at the University of Guelph. This article was distributed by and has been edited for length.

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