Our ‘Don’t Test, Don’t Know’ Policy on BSE Must Change
by Margret Kopala

Published in the Ottawa Citizen, August 21, 2004
in the Edmonton Journal, August 22, 2004
and in the Vancouver Sun, August 30, 2004.

The Alberta based Canadian Cattlemen for Fair Trade recently filed a claim for $150 million with the U.S. government for losses from the mad cow crisis. Under NAFTA’s Chapter 11 investment provisions, they say the U.S. has “unjustifiably provided less favourable treatment” to Canadian beef producers.

Trade experts say winning its case is possible but this - along with initiatives to create independent meat packing operations for processing cattle whose numbers are swelling in their millions at the Canada U.S. border - is a stark reminder of the absence of progress in resolving a crisis that’s had Canadian cattlemen on their knees since May 2003. Or, should I say, it’s a reminder of the absence of any progress in eliminating or even determining the extent of mad cow disease in Canada because, certainly, enormous sums of money and effort are supporting an industry severely affected by it.

The answer is blanket testing for BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) – the always fatal brain wasting disease that produces symptoms in 30 month old cattle and can be transmitted to humans where after long incubation it appears as variant Creutzfeldt Jakob Disease. Organizations like the Alberta Cattle Feeders have demanded this but when Cattleland Feedlot in Strathmore, Alberta, wanted to test its own cattle, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency said only it does BSE testing and only it can issue export permits.

The Canadian Health Coalition too wants more testing and expressed outrage earlier this year when Ottawa rejected the advice of its own experts to test 65,000 cattle over a one year period to ensure BSE is not widespread. Instead it plans to test 8,000 this year, the minimum required by the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) to maintain surveillance obligations, increasing to 30,000 over the next five years. “Their policy is: You don’t test, you don’t find,” said the Coalition’s Michael McBane. “Every other country that increased testing found significantly more (infected) cows. They keep saying it’s an isolated case. How would we know? We’re not testing enough to find out.”

And now, thanks to a $70 per head charge by renderers collecting dead stock and farmers’ reluctance to take their “downed, diseased, dead or distressed cattle” to testing labs, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency is behind in meeting even its reduced surveillance obligations.

Delivering his report earlier this month, Alberta Auditor General Fred Dunn said that though the OIE can’t penalize Canada for failing to test sufficient numbers of animals, it can drop its designation from minimal BSE Risk to moderate risk. If that happens, decisions about border openings move to the World Trade Organisation where they will languish interminably.

What Dunn didn’t say is that failing to test means Canada won’t have a competent assessment of the risk to consumers. This is urgent as science is rapidly catching up with the reality of BSE.

British microbiologist Stephen Dealler, who monitored the BSE crisis in Britain, says the large amount of research that has taken place demonstrates several things should now be taken as accepted.

His websight editorial on important data concerning BSE in the USA notes there’s a major problem in the tendency to assume that cattle with no symptoms are not infected. BSE infects cattle particularly when young, he says, even the first few months of life, though the level of infectivity is much lower and harder to detect before symptoms appear. And like Dr. Donald Berry, a biostatistician at the University of Texas who estimates that Canada and the U.S. slaughter 1,750 infected cattle every year, Dr.Dealler believes that for every BSE animal with symptoms, probably a further six or seven with no symptoms have been eaten. Most importantly, he says that farmers will avoid tests that cost them money and which may cause them to lose money if the test is found to be positive. This means that it is essential to introduce compensatory mechanisms.

Canada can’t know the extent of its BSE problem until comprehensive testing takes place. For cattlemen, negative tests create a competitive advantage while positive tests compel remedy. But failing to test at all is a betrayal of the very science we invoke to say our animals are healthy. Worse it is negligent and suggests we don’t care whether our animals are infected because, after all, we remove certain risk materials from the human food chain. Never mind animal rights, this approach puts a ticking time bomb in humans.

Margret Kopala’s column on western perspectives appears weekly.

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