Testing for marketing beef may work, but it is too late

Ahead of the Heard

The concept of BSE testing for marketing has, since the outbreak back in 2003, been one of those exasperating “what if” scenarios. That being – what if such BSE testing had been done from the beginning, would export beef markets been re-opened a lot sooner, would the billions in losses borne by cattle producers and the beef industry have been avoided. It’s all hypothetical of course, until a recent study put the issue into a more honest perspective.

The study was a long time in coming as many of the principal stakeholders like government agencies, major beef processors, and industry groups were not keen in wanting the whole story to be told. To those who asked the obvious questions about why BSE testing for marketing was not implemented the study is a vindication, of sorts.

The study entitled “A cost-benefit analysis of voluntary BSE testing in cattle” was done by the George Morris Centre. It’s a comprehensive report and goes beyond the title. It’s a review of the entire BSE issue, how it developed, its impact on marketing and how the industry was affected. It then ties in the BSE testing issue and how the various players reacted to the idea. It’s somewhat surprising conclusion was that BSE testing for marketing does have some value in certain limited markets. It’s surprising because this is contrary to the position of the major beef processors. It’s also contrary to the position of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), which has made it clear that it will oppose any consideration, or even thoughts, of BSE testing for marketing. Their position has always been that it must be based on sound science and not on any marketing schemes; the report questions that approach.

It’s clear from this analysis that the villain in the whole BSE testing issue is the CFIA and its big brother the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). More than once, the report states that the vehement opposition of those two agencies stifled almost any initiative, save for a couple by two very brave meat packers. Anecdotally, packers are reluctant to cross either government agency because they fear costly retaliation wielded through the government agencies’ inspection powers at the plant level. Both agencies act as judge, jury and enforcer when it comes to meat processing regulations, packers are painfully aware of that reality.

In evaluating the CFIA position, the report notes that their rigid position on BSE testing and sound science is not consistent. The CFIA according to the report is involved with organic, hormone-free, and GM content inspection and labeling – most of which are not science based, but are marketing initiatives. A curious double-standard surely.

I would suggest the report has gone a long way in settling the BSE testing issue, that being it is viable and feasible. But it’s clear that the belligerent opposition of the CFIA and USDA to any initiative will see that it will never be allowed to even be considered. The USDA even beat back a legal challenge by an American packer to begin such testing. The sole Canadian packer who enquired about the possibility has since gone out of business under secretive circumstances. I would suggest that other processors and exporters got the message, intended or not.

It was always going to take a massive political effort by producer groups and the beef processing industry to get BSE testing for marketing approved. There was a window for universal testing at the beginning of the BSE outbreak, but when the USDA reopened their border to Canadian beef after a couple of months, that avenue was closed. I suspect some of that had to do with a side deal between the CFIA and USDA on BSE testing, and the rest is history.

There is one curious perspective to the whole issue, David Pope, the rancher/lawyer who has singlehandedly led a crusade for testing made an interesting observation about CFIA intransigence: He has commented that were there a very large outbreak of BSE, the CFIA has contingency plans to initiate exactly what they have so determinedly fought since 2003 – yes – that would be BSE testing all Canadian beef to make sure markets remain open. I suggest there is a message in that quandary.

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