Government Must End Uncertainty for Cattlemen
by Margret Kopala

Published by the Ottawa Citizen, March 6, 2004

Southern Alberta is a magnificent part of Canada with sprawling hills that change from green to taupe and gray or white as the season dictates. Despite a recent flurry of snow, calving season is about to begin. It’s an event that’s as reliable as Mother Nature herself. Even so, for Arnow Dirksen, a cow-calf rancher and feedlot operator who is also chairman of the Alberta Beef Producers’ Association, the word ‘uncertainty’ sneaks into his vocabulary with disquieting regularity.

“The profit is in the calves ... but since the BSE crisis, the cycle’s interrupted. Now with the uncertainty of the (American) border opening, … and the uncertainty that it might go into next year …there’s 30 to 40 percent fewer calves in the process … “

Cindy McCreath, Communications Manager for the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association in Calgary, is more upbeat. “The U.S. has readmitted boneless beef at the same rate of sales. We’re pleased with all the efforts government departments are making.”

Despite growing protectionist sentiment in an American election year, McCreath believes the American border for Canadian cattle will open soon.

She may be right. A proposal to resume shipments is under consideration but U.S .officials want more public comment. This could be completed by summer.

In addition, Agri Food and Agriculture Minister Speller and his U.S. counterpart Ann Veneman are co-operating to expedite cross border shipments and to standardise regulations for feed safety and animal inspections that would meet international demands.

Both countries are motivated to achieve results. The U.S. beef industry has lost up to $30 million U.S. a day while Canada, facing added complications around allegations of price gouging and inadequate slaughter facilities, has lost at least $1.9 billion Cdn since last May when its mad cow case was first reported.

And that may be the key to decisive action.

Mad cow costs are climbing – for cattle and feedlot owners and for the Canadian taxpayer. Last summer the federal government committed $520 million to the bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) recovery program; another $92 million is on its way for increasing BSE testing. This month Bob Speller announced revisions to the $120 million Cull Animal Program. Now there’s speculation that the March 23 budget will feature another $300 million.

Even with overlap in programs, that’s around a billion dollars and it doesn’t include amounts being spent by provincial governments. For an industry on its knees, the billion dollar’s ignominious and alliterative counterpart – ‘boondoggle’ – hardly applies. But it does beg questions about whether enough is being done to address systemic issues associated with the BSE crisis.

At least a few western commentators now believe the biggest challenge facing the cattle industry is restoring consumer confidence. The Saskatoon Star Phoenix applauded Speller’s commitment of $92 million to increase testing over the next five years but Grande Prairie’s Daily Herald-Tribune says that even this is not drastic enough. It wants a safety assurance system that satisfies domestic customers and rates as the best in the world.

This means heroic measures such as universal testing for BSE and what the European Union has termed a “total feed ban”.

Universal testing of the 3.5 million animals slaughtered each year at up to $30 a head is undoubtedly costly. Undertaken for the current generation of cattle, however, it could remove infected cattle while the second measure, the “total feed ban” takes effect.

A “total feed ban” - that is, a ban on feeding all risk materials to all animals, not just to ruminants - is the only way to prevent cross-contamination that can take place on farms that raise, say, chickens as well as cows. It would also prevent inter and intra species infection. This measure was implemented by the European Union in 2001 and if our farmers want access to that and similarly discriminating markets, it should be implemented here.

Our governments have emphasized science and good relations with the Americans. This has worked because no further cases of BSE are evident. When another case does appear, we may not be so lucky.

In the meantime, waiting while the Americans get up to speed on the issue could cost taxpayers even more in bail out money.

By fulfilling its regulatory function, the Canadian government will not only help assure food safety and fiscal prudence, it will end uncertainty for cattlemen like Arnow Dirksen and open new markets for him.

Margret Kopala’s column on western perspectives appears weekly.

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