BC Mad Cow Case Not Likely to Affect Canada-US Trade

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posted April 25, 2006

On April 16, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency confirmed British Columbia’s first case of Mad Cow or Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE). The cattle and beef industry remains concerned about the U.S. border staying open to younger slaughter animals. The breeding industry, which has not been able to export to the United States since May 2003, fears further delays in a US decision to reopen the border to cattle over 30 months of age.

There is good reason to expect that this BC case will have no impact on our trade with the United States. US Secretary of Agriculture, Mike Johanns, has already indicated that based on the current information, he does not anticipate a change in the status of our trade. As in previous cases, a US representative will monitor how we handle the tracing of this disease.

British Columbians do not have to worry about an epidemic of Mad Cow as happened in Britain. The risk of human infection in North America is also very small. Still, managing the animal disease is a complex business in which good Canadian regulations and careful Canadian-US cooperation is a must. A recent Fraser Institute study (Mad Cow: A Case Study in Canadian-American Relations) explores the reasons for this conclusion.

Mad Cow is caused by a rogue protein that eats holes in the brain. In 1996 it was linked to a fatal human disease called variant-Creutzfeldt Jacob Disease. It spread from Britain in the 1980s by the practice of feeding animal protein to cattle. Both Canada and the United States responded by banning the import of British cows in 1989. In 1997 both banned the practice of feeding rendered cattle protein back to cattle.

In 2003 the first indigenous Canadian Mad Cow was confirmed in Alberta disrupting a $4 billion export market Canada had in cattle and beef with the US as a result of our free trade agreements. In December of 2003 a Washington State cow was diagnosed which had been imported from Canada in 2001. Importing countries always react by closing the border because it takes a long time to eliminate Mad Cow disease once it is found in your herd. Canada lost its cattle exports south of the border; the US lost its beef exports to Asia.

The US government calculated the Canadian BSE risk as minimal and restored the boneless beef trade with Canada within a matter of months. But a shrewd lobby called R-CALF was able to slow the American Department of Agriculture down on procedural issues by over a year to reopen the border to live cattle under 30 months. Most of Canada’s trade to the US has since been restored.

Since 2003 Canada has taken additional measures against BSE. We remove the organs from older animals that contain most of the infectious protein. If there is feed mislabeling or accidental contamination of animal feed, the risk of spreading the disease is brought to a minimum. We have tested 100,000 at risk animals and begun a national identification program. Still, some uncertainty remains. The fact that Canadian Mad Cow cases are found in animals who were born several years after the 1997 feed ban causes concerns about the extent to which the disease is still spreading.

The good news for Canada is that the US Department of Agriculture has set up a stable risk regime based on international guidelines whereby Canada can have up to 2 animals per million in the population over the age of 24 months in four consecutive years. Based on a calculation of the Canadian herd in March of this year that means we can have 13 cases per year without it affecting our trade. The BC case would make a total of six Canadian cases (counting the December 2003 case) in three years.

Thus, the numbers remain low enough that Canadian producers can be quite assured that successful political or legal challenges to the US Department of Agriculture’s pro-free trade policy are unlikely.

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