TB outbreak reveals lack of government concern

Almost any cattle disease outbreak is met with fearful concern by the industry considering the past nightmare with BSE.

AHEAD OF THE HEARD — Almost any cattle disease outbreak is met with fearful concern by the industry considering the past nightmare with Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE).

Such situations are particularly sensitive to the beef sector as it is usually targeted by the urban media. One recalls over-the-top media coverage whenever food borne disease outbreaks occurred with beef and E.coli, salmonella and listeria contamination. Most folks are unaware that most of those diseases are spread by lettuce, poultry and fruits. TB has been a problem in the past, but was virtually eradicated in the 1960s. Since then TB has been harboured in isolated herds of wild elk and bison. By not dealing more robustly with those situations it was just a matter of time before an outbreak would reoccur with cattle. Infected wildlife continue to be found in two national parks – Wood Buffalo and Riding Mountain, where the unofficial approach seems to be one of monitoring with eradication as a very last resort. Part of that approach is the PR and image sensitivity to thousands of head of wildlife being destroyed in public view.

It would seem that the latest outbreak could well be sourced to another government-owned elk herd – that being the one that roams on the Suffield Military range. Some may quibble as to which government is responsible for that herd, but 200 elk were placed on that range by the federal government after the wild horse herd was removed. Without adequate control that herd now numbers in the thousands with opportunistic elk jumping fences and co-mingling with neighbouring cattle herds. Government officials claim that heads from elk killed by hunters in the area show no TB from lab results. That’s cold comfort to those facing financial ruin from a dubious decision made by less than insightful federal government land managers who stocked the range with elk in the first place.

Government response to the TB outbreak falls into two very diverse levels. From a technical aspect the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) does a very commendable job – they have the expertise and experience to deal with these types of outbreaks. As admirable as their approach is it’s governed by strict protocols in controlling and eliminating the outbreak. The financial ramifications to producers are not always adequately addressed by CFIA rules. Yes, there is compensation for directly affected producers but it’s neither robust nor extensive. Getting market value for euthanized cattle does not always reflect their breeding value. What has come to light is the collateral damage done to ranchers near the outbreak. The CFIA established a quarantine zone around the actual TB source herds. That may be wise from a technical and health perspective but the financial ramifications of that action have not been addressed. It’s at that point that government dithering becomes so disappointing. The feds, as expected, hide behind the CFIA and suggest patience to let the process evolve. That’s cold comfort to quarantined ranchers who can’t sell their cattle. What’s most disappointing is any compassion from the Alberta Minister of Agriculture – his rather callous response has been that the department is monitoring the situation and that affected producers should see if existing government support programs are available. If a timely specific program was actually available, the financial and marketing calamity that now exists wouldn’t be an issue.

This is wishful delusion of course, but wouldn’t it be a burst of sunshine and hope if the Alberta Minister of Agriculture went down to the Jenner area, met with the affected ranchers and assured them that the Alberta government had their back and would immediately establish a compensation program for those not eligible under the CFIA rules. The cost would be minor in the scheme of things; besides the government has claimed that it has saved millions by terminating the Alberta Meat and Livestock Agency – couldn’t those savings be used to compensate affected producers? In addition, think of the positive PR and political perception the NDP government could garner from such a generous gesture. That would serve this government well considering the political and ideological chasm that exists with the ag sector. But don’t hold your breath; such a positive compassionate step by the Minister of Agriculture would have to be approved by the political strategists in the Premier’s office – most of whom see the ag sector as a political adversary. Perhaps if the affected ranchers could claim that by compensating them the government would be helping stop climate change. That seems to be the only sure-fire way to get the attention of this government.