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Mad cows was really a trade issue

Most would agree that the ‘mad cow’ event of May 20th, 2003, following the discovery of our country’s first native bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) case, wasn’t really a food safety-centric crisis, at least in Canada. In retrospect, it was primarily a trade crisis.

As domestic demand for beef shattered records in Canada that year, 35 countries, including the U.S. and Japan, overnight issued an embargo on Canadian cattle and beef. Since half of Canada’s $7 billion beef industry was based on exports, the embargo was a catastrophe. Despite billions in compensation, many farmers went under, and livelihoods were destroyed. The BSE crisis was very real to the cattle industry, and a passing worry for Canadian consumers. But most importantly, it was a crisis that could have been prevented.

For the world at large, the mad cow crisis began on what is now known as “Black Wednesday” — March 20, 1996 — the day the British government admitted there was a probable link between exposure to infected meat and Creutzfeldt-Jakob’s disease (vCJD), the human variant of BSE. The admission resulted in the culling of millions of animals in an effort to control the disease. Unfortunately, this did not prevent the death of more than 200 people from vCJD.

The only significant regulatory change in Canada before 2003 came in 1997 with the ban of the practice of rendering ruminants for cattle feed. However, ruminant feed was still readily available on the market, and violations of the ban were reported.

With the establishment of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CIFA) in 1996, the post-May 20, 2003 era brought further policy changes.

This move was long overdue. Indeed, some argued it was several years too late. Implementing such a policy earlier could have resulted in significant advances in detection and preventative technology. Diagnosis of BSE continues to be a challenge, as the incubation period can last years without a cow showing any symptoms. There is virtually no way to detect the disease without examining brain tissue post mortem, using neuropathological methods. Since 2003, we have discovered new methods to detect BSE in living cattle, but none are commercially available.

Most damaging for the CFIA, proud of its science-based heritage, was its unfounded assumptions throughout the 2003 ordeal, significantly affecting its credibility. For example, the agency stated time and again that animals under the age of 30 months could not develop BSE. In Japan, which has discovered more than 30 BSE cases since 2001, and where BSE testing is compulsory, two of the country’s mad cow cases were in 21-month-old and 23-month-old animals. The CFIA seemed only concerned about the politics of food safety, which severely limited its understanding of the scope of the crisis that was unfolding. Food safety, after all, is first and foremost a public health issue.

Communicating food-safety risks to the Canadian public was also a challenge for the CFIA during the crisis, a challenge that the federal regulator faces to this day.

Looking back a decade later, it is somewhat reassuring to see the CFIA has matured into a learning, open organization that is still committed to evidence-based rigor. Looking at food safety from a scientific perspective, the regulator has shown it can proactively balance the economics of food safety with the concerns that modern Canadian consumers have regarding food systems in general. The 2003 mad cow crisis made the federal regulator more efficiently attuned with the realities of modern food-safety practices. However, when considering the XL Foods scandal that began in September 2012, there is still room for improvement. †

Here are several noteworthy dates over the next few weeks involving conferences, speakers and field days that may be well worth attending.


The Saskatchewan Stock Growers Association is marking the 100th anniversary of its founding this coming weekend, June 9-11, with special events during its annual meeting in Moose Jaw, Sask.

Based on the theme “Riding for the Brand,” the event kicks off Sunday with a ranch rodeo, barbecue, and old-fashioned barn dance. The business sessions begin Monday, June 10, with a strong lineup of speakers on a wide range of topics. For more information or to register visit the SSGA website at:


And if you happen to be in Saskatchewan for Canada’s Farm Progress Show June 19-21 at the exhibition grounds in Regina, you may want to stay on a couple of extra days and attend the 15th annual Western Beef Development Centre field day at the Termuende Research Ranch at Lanigan, Sask.

The one-day event begins with registration at 9 a.m. There will be a number of displays; several speakers on beef production, forage and grazing topics; and tours and demonstrations. Wrapping up the day is a steak supper. For more details visit the WBDC website at

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