Negligible risk status will have big impact on beef sector

The international designation will allow Canadian beef exporters access to more foreign markets. | File photo

Congratulations are in order for the effort and dedication of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association in finally achieving negligible risk status for BSE.

The international designation will allow Canadian beef exporters access to more foreign markets.

Canadian beef access to many foreign markets has been restricted since 2003 when BSE was first diagnosed in Canada in one of our commercially raised cattle.

The World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) has strict guidelines for testing after cases are discovered and it closely monitors and regulates each country’s risk status.

When BSE first hit, it was inspiring that Canada is still the only country in the world where consumers increased their beef consumption.

What does the new classification of negligible risk status mean for the Canadian cattle industry?

First, it means it will likely open beef export markets that Canada was shut out of after BSE hit. Even though many countries continued to deal with Canada because of its extensive testing and because specified risk materials were removed during processing, other countries depend on the OIE guidelines. The OIE’s change to class Canada as negligible risk should remove trade barriers.

Canada almost received negligible risk status in 2015, but then one last cow was diagnosed in Alberta. I thought we would still achieve negligible risk status because that cow originated from a farm where a previous case was diagnosed, but there was no concession and Canada has had to persevere five additional years and then apply for the designation.

Much like the recent COVID-19 pandemic has taught us how a medical condition can cripple an economy or change the way we do things, BSE brought similar changes to the Canadian cattle industry. Cow prices fell and the future was uncertain.

However, the Canadian cattle industry found a way. There were much higher costs associated with removing the SRMs and disposing of them. I am hopeful that over time we will be required to remove only a few pounds of SRMs like the United States, which also has negligible risk status.

Until packing plants get a clear directive it will be business as usual and SRM removal will continue as per current standards.

As far as BSE testing goes, that will also be business as usual, until there is a clear directive. We still have the Canadian quota in place of 30,000 head or as close to that as we can get.

The testing quotas vary depending on the cattle population in each province. Over time, criteria and categories will change.

In the meantime, producers can take advantage of the program and have any dead cows tested. BSE testing through autopsies has been an excellent window in some instances into the health of a herd.

Other chronic problems can be explored and samples taken so a definitive cause of death is determined. Remember, summer is hot and carcasses get autolytic quickly so it’s almost an emergency. As a tip, I have producers place a straw bale or two as insulation from warmth in summer and cold in winter until an autopsy can be performed.

There is no doubt BSE removed lots of resources from research or programs to control other production-limiting diseases such as Johne’s, leukosis and bovine viral diarrhea.

We learned how the consumer is behind us and we learned how we could get through it by working together.

BSE, because of the slight risk it could be contracted by humans, illustrates the importance of zoonotic diseases.

I believe it has made us better at biosecurity and heightened our vigilance with surveillance.

By stripping out the spinal cord as part of the practice of removing SRMs, slightly different cuts of meat were developed. Even the rendering industry changed because most of the meat protein was not going back into cattle feed.

Good things are worth waiting for and let’s congratulate ourselves and listen for the changes that are surely coming regarding the testing for BSE and specified risk materials.

Let our representatives at the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association and elected government officials continue to work on our meat exports. The quality and safety of Canadian beef is known far and wide and the negligible risk status solidifies that.

Roy Lewis works as a veterinarian in Alberta.

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