Canada must remain vigilant on BSE testing to avoid return

Everyone in Canada, and particularly people in the beef industry, wishes BSE was relegated to the dustbin of painful memories.

To do that, producers, the industry and government must pay more heed to our BSE surveillance program.

Through hard work, BSE is mostly behind us. The last cow to test positive was a six-and-a-half-year-old dairy cow identified in 2011. The industry and federal government have worked hard to reopen markets for younger animals.

The herd is safer than ever since strict feed rules were put in place.

However, Canada still carries the less desirable “controlled BSE risk” designation from the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE).

As such, it suffers from restricted access in many key beef markets, representing hundreds of millions of dollars in lost sales potential.

We are on track to be considered for an up-grade to the desired “negligible BSE risk” status by 2016.

That will be the year when more than 11 years have passed since the birth of the most recent positive BSE animal in Canada.

It is not the only criteria OIE assesses for BSE status. Canada must also show it is serious about maintaining a robust BSE surveillance program, which focuses on testing older animals.

However, the number of cattle tested for BSE in Canada has fallen sharply in recent years, from about 55,000 in 2007 to likely less than the OIE requirement of 30,000 head this year.

Failure to meet that target opens Canada up to allegations that it is not looking hard enough for the disease.

There are several reasons for the reduced testing, some of them beyond the control of the industry.

Heavy culling of older animals has made the cow herd younger. It is also much smaller, meaning there are fewer old cows to test.

Canada is trying to convince the OIE to change its testing target from the set number of 30,000 to a percentage of the herd.

Another factor is that through the passage of time and reopening of many markets, BSE is no longer top of mind for many producers.

As well, there is less government support to offset the cost of testing. The federal government still offers $75 for eligible animals older than 30 months and those that are either diseased, distressed, down or dead. The program also pays for a veterinarian to go to the cattle operation.

However, the Alberta government ended its top up of $150 per head in 2011, arguing it was a temporary measure to increase awareness and participation. British Columbia was the only other province offering a subsidy.

A coalition that includes beef and dairy producers and government is trying to boost BSE surveillance through a promotional program designed to once more put testing at the forefront of producers’ thinking.

BSE testing should be a no brainer for any producer.

It holds the promise not only of increasing market access but also protects investments already made in traceability and feed regulations, the value of which could be discounted if the testing program falls short.

However, testing still presents a hassle and cost to the producer.

A Canada-wide government program that more fully offsets producers’ costs and hassles would help the industry meet its testing requirements to achieve the negligible risk standing needed to expand beef sales and generate taxable revenue, providing a handsome return on the taxpayers’ investment.

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