An anniversary most folks would like to forget

A number of media outlets, including some big-city daily newspapers, have been recognizing the 10th anniversary of the outbreak of BSE

A number of media outlets, including some big-city daily newspapers, have been recognizing the 10th anniversary of the outbreak of BSE in Canada.

I expect for most folks in the cattle industry who were adversely affected by this calamity, it’s an anniversary that they would just like to forget.

It was somewhat curious to see urban newspapers run stories with thousands of words covering the minutia of what happened back then. I expect most city folks turned the pages quickly being baffled and bored with historical BSE anecdotes of which they have no clue.

True to form, most of the stories carried the word “mad cow” in the headline as if to once again try to capture reader interest with such provocative words.

I still recall the comments of city news editors on why they insisted on using those words ad nauseam at every opportunity. It was simply contrived media sensationalism.

They loved those words and stated that the headline was the story — the rest was just filler and it didn’t matter whether it was fact or fiction. News wire services made a fortune selling obscure “mad cow” stories and bylines to gullible city editors around the world.

What is of interest in the city press BSE stories is that almost no mention is made of the raging controversy that dogged the outbreak for most of the past ten years. That’s no surprise as most of the anniversary stories that have been written are by junior reporters who were not even teenagers when the outbreak occurred. Their stories were mostly sourced from their newspaper’s archives.

The controversy that was so prominent at the time was the use of BSE testing in mitigating the impact on most beef export markets.

The fact that its use was so fiercely opposed and blocked by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) is a disgrace to that government agency. The devastating impact of BSE on our offshore beef export markets could have been so much less had common sense and precedence been followed.

Sadly, it took almost eight years before a third party marketing study confirmed that universal BSE testing would have made a difference in mitigating the impact on those exports. One shudders to think how different it all would have been if not for bureaucratic obstinacy and arrogance.

It all boils down to the unfortunate reality that when it comes to so many agriculture industry issues, our bureaucrats insist that we repeat history and BSE was perhaps the classic example of that insanity.

It seemed from the very beginning of the outbreak that both the CFIA and US department of agriculture were convinced that this was the first such outbreak in the world and they would have to deal with it in their own way.

That attitude seemed most disconcerting to most other observers being BSE and its marketing repercussions had been going on in the UK and Europe for almost 10 years.

Sheer common sense would have screamed that perhaps our government response might learn something from the European BSE experience.

After all, by their own admittance, the European authorities and governing politicians had made all the mistakes and were on the track to recovery. Apparently that mattered little to our own experts and agencies, who were determined to repeat history.

What the Europeans had learned was that science was not always the best way to deal with a public perception issue. Which is why after almost losing their beef market to suspicious consumers they decided that regardless of the science and testing efficacy that they would begin a universal BSE testing program across the EU for all beef carcasses. That critical move silenced a rabid media and allayed consumer fears about beef safety. The result was an almost immediate return of consumer confidence for the simple reason that they believed universal testing made their beef safer. Whether it was scientifically correct or effective to do so did not matter. It was a matter of perception and it worked.

Agencies and government politicians claimed such universal testing was impractical and too costly. In retrospect, when one considers the billions lost in export sales and billions of taxpayer dollars spent in subsidies, universal testing would have been a bargain.

Finally, it would seem that there appears to be a government planning document that states that if there ever is another future major outbreak of BSE in Canada that all beef will be universally tested for domestic and export markets.

It would seem that history in this case might not repeat itself. Too bad we had to learn the hard way.

— Ahead of the Heard


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