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A decade after Mad Cow — the legacy of a crisis

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GUELPH — Most would agree that the "mad cow" event of May 20, 2003, following the discovery of our country’s first native Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy 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 mad cow crisis was very real to the cattle industry, 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 that there was a probable link between exposure to infected meat and Creutzfeldt-Jakob’s disease (vCJD), the human variant of mad cow. 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.

Soon after, the world realized that BSE gradually developed into an epidemic as a consequence of an intensive farming practice spanning over 200 years, which consisted of the recycling of animal protein in ruminant feed.

By the end of 1996 the British beef industry was experiencing a complete meltdown, as more than 30,000 workers in the beef sector lost their jobs. Demand for beef products across Europe dropped by more than 35 per cent.

In Canada, however, no immediate measures were taken, despite the fact that the first Canadian domestic case of BSE was detected in a British-born cow in 1993, three years before Black Wednesday.

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

With the establishment of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency in 1996, the post-May 20, 2003, era brought further policy changes. Primarily, regulators prohibited the sale or import for sale of food products containing specified risk material, such as skulls and brain tissue. In addition, the Canadian BSE surveillance system was also established in order to test more cases.

This decision was long overdue; indeed, some argued that 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 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 mentioned time and again that animals could not develop BSE under the age of 30 months. In Japan, which has discovered over 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 mad cow, a challenge that the federal regulator faces to this day.

Looking back a decade later, it is somewhat reassuring to see that the CFIA has matured into a learning, open organization that is still committed to evidence-based rigour.

Looking at food safety from a scientific perspective, the regulator has shown it can proactively balance the economics of food safety with concerns 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.

 

Sylvain Charlebois is associate dean of the college of management and economics at the University of Guelph.

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