Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The tale of Peaster's cow

The theme of this story is greed and complacency

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A Black Angus cow, maybe eight years old, inexplicably collapses last January on a farm in northern Alberta. Her owner, Marwyn Peaster, can't coax her up. He assumes pneumonia has struck.

Even though all of us have seen the images of British cows drooling and staggering in confusion, it never occurs to Peaster that his cow might also have bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). After all, he's been told time and time again that "there is no mad cow disease in Canada."

For years, the beef industry glibly dismissed BSE as a "European disease." In truth, the arrival of mad cow on this side of the ocean was inevitable. Inevitable, because the industrialized agri-business system that produces our food operates on the basis of profit and expediency above all, even above food safety.

Every step in the process that leads from living animal to packaged meat is coloured by corporate greed and government complacency. There were no rules broken in the story of Peaster's cow, but an analysis of the events shows how richly the ground was fertilized for the appearance of mad cow disease.

On the day Peaster's cow collapsed, she stopped being a valuable member of his herd. She became a "downer." Perhaps he should have called a veterinarian, but that costs money - precious dollars to farmers struggling to maintain a livelihood. He might have followed the federal government's voluntary "Code of Practice" that says downers should be euthanized right on the farm. But that too meant lost dollars.

Instead, like other farmers before him, Peaster took the easy, though hardly commendable, route. In an effort to salvage a little income, he dragged the cow off to slaughter. "The cow was still alive, it just wasn't getting up any more," he later told reporters.

But he did not deliver her to a big, federally inspected slaughterhouse. Inspectors there would likely turn her away. Federally inspected packinghouses produce 95 per cent of Canada's beef, everything destined to leave a province or the country. These huge slaughterhouses often kill hundreds of cattle an hour in a dizzying chain of blood and bone. There is simply no time to deal with a special case - a downer.

Peaster's chance at a few bucks was much more hopeful at a smaller, provincially inspected plant. But even the inspector at the portal of this more lax system could not let the broken-down cow pass into the human food chain. Instead, he dispatched her body - minus the head - to a rendering plant.

Slaughterhouses sell the 40 per cent of a cow they can't use to rendering companies, which chop up and boil the bones, hooves and innards of a cow along with the carcasses and leftovers of other farm animals, pets and roadkill. Rendering likes to bill itself as the ultimate recycler. The industry has worked hard to create a market for its animal-waste sludge in everything from lipstick to candy to cheap, high-protein feed for farm animals.

Farm-animal feed has been one of the key growth areas for the industry. It was discovered in Europe during the Second World War, when plant protein was in short supply, that animal protein could be substituted. It meant turning herbivores, like cattle, into carnivores, but the bonus was that the animals grew faster. Even when plant proteins became once again more widely available, animal protein became a routine ingredient of the industrialized agricultural diet.

Meanwhile, the head from Peaster's sick cow was sitting in the freezer of the provincial lab in Edmonton awaiting a test for BSE. It was not a priority - no one suspected mad cow, even though there is ample research that downer cows are more likely to be diseased, and the so-called "European disease" had already travelled far, to Japan, Chile and Italy. Somehow, Canadian authorities continued to cling to the delusion that it couldn't happen here.

The diseased brain languished in the freezer for four months. The overworked lab staff had more pressing issues to deal with than checking a specimen for a disease they were sure they wouldn't find. But when they finally did slide a slice of the brain under the microscope, the specimen turned the critical pink hue no one had expected.

Complacency finally gave way to frenzied activity. The feds got involved and sent specimens for verification to the national lab in Winnipeg and the World Reference Lab in the United Kingdom. Confirmation of the bad news came within days.

Government inspectors are now desperately trying to retrace the cow's history. But one thing is sure: Because BSE is contracted when cows eat feed contaminated by other sick cows, Peaster's cow is not an "isolated incident." Wherever she contracted the disease, the cows she stood shoulder-to-shoulder with would have eaten the same soiled feed.

It's sad that all this energy was not applied to preventative action. Despite Canada's much-touted food-safety system, both the provincial and federal governments operated on the basis of complacency. They chose not to put their efforts and their dollars into tough regulations, inspectors to enforce them, and labs to examine food samples. It is, after all, much more politically appealing to balance budgets or even better, to cut taxes.

Government cutbacks happened quietly, under the public radar. Ten years ago, there used to be four labs in Alberta that could test for BSE - now there is only one. The federal government likes to say its food-safety system is the best in the world, but just three years ago the Auditor General said there were dire problems of understaffing and lax enforcement in the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, the federal agency responsible for food safety. Even though the CFIA's payroll of 1,120 inspectors and 260 vets sounds impressive, they watch over 800 federally registered slaughterhouses and 600 million animals.

The agency's BSE surveillance program is much weaker than those practised in other countries. Although Canada slaughters 3.6 million cattle every year, the federal government tests only 3,000 animals annually. The French, who raise only a quarter of the cattle we do, test 20,000 animals a week.

Ottawa has also been offloading its responsibilities to the agri-business industry itself. It is counting on farms, slaughterhouses and packing plants to police themselves by implementing a self-inspection protocol called Hazard Analysis at Critical Control Points (HACCP). Some skeptics say HACCP stands for "have a cup of coffee and pray." In the chicken-packing business, Ottawa is even experimenting with leaving all inspections at a slaughterhouse to plant employees.

Canadian rules are simply not tough enough. In 1997, Canada banned feeding ruminants like cattle to ruminants. We may have outlawed feeding of cows to cows, but we don't ban feeding cows to pigs or chickens, or pigs and chickens to cows. Given mad cow's documented ability to jump the species barrier to humans, it seems foolish to feed any farm animals to farm animals. And how can you stop chicken feed, for example, ending up in the cattle yard?

Britain chose to be ultra-cautious, banning all animal protein in feed in 1996. The rest of Europe followed suit four years later to stop any confusion about feeding the wrong feed to the wrong animals. But the North American rendering industry lobbied U.S. and Canadian governments hard not to go that far. And once again, the government sided in the industry's favour rather that opting for a precautious approach on food safety.

In the early 1990s, there also was talk of integrating Canada's confusing, two-tier, slaughterhouse inspection system. However, the idea died when provincial plants resisted the idea of coming up to federal standards.

Mad cow disease decimated the British cattle industry. Millions of cattle were pre-emptively slaughtered. More than 130 Britons, many of them young, died gruesome deaths. And yet we didn't learn.

Perhaps Marwyn Peaster's ailing cow will kick-start Canada into adopting a food-safety system based on precaution rather than greed and complacency. Let's hope so.

Ingeborg Boyens is a Manitoba writer. Her most recent book is Another Season's Promise: Hope and Despair in Canada's Farm Country.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 1, 2003 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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