The news that a cow in Alberta tested positive for Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) sent a major chill through the entire food system. This crisis could not have come at a worse time. IHigh beef prices had the promise of making that one agricultural enterprise successful over the long term.
In Manitoba, thanks to a positive public policy environment, meat production had been increasing and was putting much-needed dollars into the rural economy. The spin-offs of cattle production are enormous. They include the animal care industry, processing, trucking and feed production. All these are threatened by one cow on one farm in one province that tested positive for BSE.
Throw in a hysterical American media and a U.S. government still irritated by Canada’s wrong-headed and harmful stance on the Iraq war, and a pretty grim picture begins to emerge. Canada could not be more vulnerable on this front. We export 73% of our beef production to the United States yet we represent only about 5% of their consumption. We are completely dependent on the vast American market but are mere ”boutique” suppliers. Australia, our main competitor in the United States, has closed its borders to our beef and will eagerly fill any gaps south of our border. Did I mention that Australia was shoulder-to-shoulder with America in the Iraq war?
To top it off, there’s the new “Country of Origin Labeling” rules being imposed in the United States. When the BSE issue is resolved (as I’m sure it will be), all American consumers will be able to see where their beef came from. Any guesses as to which country’s steak Americans will avoid?
BSE is caused by a little-known infectious agent called a “prion.” Prions are bits of protein that are largely inert, but they can become infectious in some circumstances. I listened to a radio interview with an expert in neuro-science, who noted that prions are only found in nervous system tissues such as brains, nerves and the spinal cord. When asked point blank whether eating a steak carries any risk, he said that it was zero, simply because prions are not found in muscle tissue. That was good enough for me, and steak will be on the barbecue this summer at our place. As well, based on the rarity of the human disease, it is evident that the chance of catching the human variant of BSE is small.
The federal system must do a better job of inspecting food and reporting results in a timely manner. In this case, the four months between the animal’s identification as abnormal and the release of testing results was far too long. Talk about misplaced priorities! The federal government can devote a billion dollars and over a thousand bureaucrats to firearms’ registration, but can’t muster the resolve to ensure safe food. Given the seriousness of the issue, this must change.
In the case of BSE it appears that hysteria and politics will trump good science, at least for a while. Let’s hope that no more BSE animals are discovered and that Canada can regain access to the U.S. beef market. And we must learn from this catastrophe to ensure that it is never repeated.