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Mad cow: Canada could be next

January 9, 2002 The Hamilton Spectator by Doug Powell, Justin Kastner
North American beef farmers have one New Year's wish more than any other -- keeping free of mad cow disease.

But as the scourge spreads through Europe -- Austria and Finland are the latest to test positive for cattle with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) -- and Japan, where at least three animals have tested positive and beef sales have plummeted as much as 40 per cent, farmers in North America may rightly wonder, are they next?

Probably. But the question is not if mad cow disease will appear. It will. Instead, the more meaningful policy and health issue is: Can it be contained? Can North American regulators learn from the stumbles of their foreign counterparts? And can they learn from history? To date, the Canadian and U.S. evidence is positive and the measures adopted should give some comfort to cattle producers.

There is always a risk of an outbreak such as mad cow or foot and mouth, one that needs to be managed through constant vigilance, but regulations and guidelines are only as good as their verification.

In the absence of something like BSE or foot and mouth, journalists and some agriculture officials are the first to proclaim the superiority of their national systems -- until the ailment invariably appears on their own soil.

But the use of one country's animal disease failures to bolster another's sense of pride deviates from the lesson of vigilance and should always be tempered by the humility that the worst can happen to any country.

Belgium, for example, can look to its own heritage for the proper blend of pride and humility. More than a century ago, in the midst of the 1865-7 cattle plague that rocked Europe, Belgium found itself spared by the scourge -- unlike many of its neighbours.

As with foot and mouth disease today, the Belgians were quick to praise their own success in keeping the cattle plague under control.

In fact, the Belgian Interior Minister of the time, Alp van Denpeereboom, proudly noted that Belgium had lost just 2,300 head of cattle to the plague while England and Holland had lost more than 230,000.

While van Denpeereboom had reason to be proud, he had more reason to remain vigilant.

Then, as today, economic relations had spun a complex web of buying and selling both animals and meat.

The 1860s was a decade of free trade and it was then in vogue in Western Europe to repeal duties on food imports. In 1860, countries began signing "most-favoured nation" commercial treaties, agreeing to charge each other no more than the lowest import duties granted to their other trading partners.

In 1862, Germany signed one such trade agreement with France, and Belgium joined the club by repealing its import duties on grain.

Commercial diplomacy such as this prompted increased cross-border trading in agricultural products, including cattle and meat. By 1865 the ravages of the cattle plague were painfully obvious and demanded regulatory controls.

In September of that year, a Brussels-based diplomat indicated how susceptible Belgium was to the cattle plague, by virtue of its trade relationships, stating: "The cattle plague, which is causing such great ravages in England, has appeared in this country, having spread from Holland where it was brought by some Dutch cattle sent to London for sale and reimported."

This susceptibility motivated Belgium to quickly prohibit "the entry and transit of cattle (and in certain areas, sheep and swine), hides, fresh meat, offal, hay, straw and manure at the maritime frontiers and the land frontiers."

These measures, along with restrictions on cattle markets and fairs, resulted in Belgium's success at keeping the plague under control.

However, the Belgian Interior Minister did not capitalize on England's and Holland's failures and use their failures as a basis for boosting Belgian pride. Rather, van Denpeereboom issued the following warning in June 1866: "It is not impossible that some isolated cases [of cattle plague] may still appear in [in our country].

"Those fears are only too much justified by the experience of the past. They must make us persist in the measures of precaution and vigilance which have enabled us to escape until now, at the cost of not very onerous sacrifices, the ravages of a pestilence whose victims are counted elsewhere by thousands."

Van Denpeereboom was wise. He understood that regulatory success is like any other kind -- always based on one's most recent performance.

All regulators should take heed of this, especially those European countries tempted to haughtily compare their regulatory systems to those of Britain.

The same applies to North Americans who, through vigilance and an excellent veterinary infrastructure, have been spared the gut-wrenching spectacles of animal carcasses in a funeral pyre.

As countries grapple with the insidiousness of BSE, they would do well to ensure that the regulations drawn up in Ottawa or Washington are enforced on the farm. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has done just that and made the results public [more accurately the FDA has made the lack of enforcement public--BSE coordinator]. Other countries, including Canada, would be wise to follow suit.

Douglas Powell is scientific director and Justin Kastner is a PhD student with the Food Safety Network at the University of Guelph.

GRAPHIC: Photo: Hamilton Spectator File Photo; A slaughterhouse worker, top right, stands amid a pile of dead cows in this 1977 photo taken near Munich. North America has escaped mad cow disease so far, but Canada must ensure its rules are followed on the farm, activists say.


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