Will the BSE testing for marketing story finally be told

The Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency (ALMA), a seemingly busybody government agency with no real purpose, has come out in support of a proposed study that surely puts them on the path to some redemption.

The Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency (ALMA), a seemingly busybody government agency with no real purpose, has come out in support of a proposed study that surely puts them on the path to some redemption.

The study in question is a cost-benefit analysis of voluntary BSE testing. ALMA is partnering for the study with the Alberta Prion Research Institute and PrioNet Canada.

PrioNet Canada officials stated this study will be an honest third-party examination of BSE testing including logistics and marketing aspects. A big concern with studies on controversial issues initiated by governments and their agencies is that such efforts will become a whitewash of government policy on the topic by appeasing consultants.

This study could finally tell the whole story of the the reality and feasibility of BSE testing for marketing. We may then be able to conclude what was lost by not going down this trail four years ago. That will be cold comfort after the billions that have been lost to the BSE issue and which continues, beyond all reason, to shackle Canadian beef exports to this day.

From a livestock perspective, there has been no issue more politicized than BSE testing. It saw a federal agency the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) step out of its bounds by making arbitrary political and trade decisions to the detriment of the industry.

Having written numerous editorials on the topic, I can’t help but reflect back on what might have happened, had the CFIA and industry taken a different route. I had the opportunity early in the crisis to go to Europe to get a first-hand look at how the Europeans were able to completely take control of their BSE crisis through mandatory BSE testing program.

Their action defused the issue in the eyes of the consumer and damage to the industry was short-lived. Unfortunately, the European experience was almost willfully ignored by the CFIA and US Department of Agriculture with the result that we continue to pay for the consequences. Government politicians on both sides of the border dared not rein in those agencies, fearing a voter backlash over food safety.

Hopefully, the study will note that implementing BSE testing for marketing at this point is no longer realistic. There are pitfalls that would have even worse repercussions. Firstly, there is that well-known secret that if you increase BSE testing you will surely find more. For instance, the Europeans found that when they did universal testing, 35 per cent of the BSE cases were from healthy animals that showed no clinical signs of the disease. I would expect the CFIA and USDA knew this, which is why they restricted testing to obvious suspicious cases and then reduced random testing. The result has been remarkably few new cases.

The Europeans were also able to change consumer and media perception about new BSE cases. Over there, new cases are greeted with some relief by both groups being that the testing process is working by removing diseased animals from the food system.

In North America, BSE is treated as the beginning of the apocalypse. Can you imagine if 50 or so BSE cases were discovered through increased testing how the media would go ballistic. I expect it is too late to change that consumer and media mindset. The reality is that the CFIA and USDA should have been more honest at the very beginning of the crisis, being that increased BSE testing and more discoveries were actually positive. But that was then and this is now.

I recall governments spent a lot of time trying not to come up with honest facts surrounding the cost and logistics of BSE testing. Packers and cattle groups went along with that no one really wanting to find more cases considering the consequences.

Hence, no real third-party study was ever done for fear the facts might arise and common sense break out. To finally settle the issue, ALMA has taken a bold step to support a third-party study. I don’t expect that the study will change anything regarding the use of BSE testing for marketing.

The CFIA and USDA have been very successful in derailing every attempt by anyone to go that route. It’s bureaucratic power at its most despicable. I will say this, ALMA is to be commended to go where no one dared go before. This is the type of dramatic action that ALMA needs to take to have any hope of credibility. We shall see.

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