Where’s the beef?

Yesterdays ruling by the 9th Circuit Federal Appeals Court brought long awaited news for Canada’s cattle industry. It appears the border is now open and beef of all cuts, as well as live cattle could begin their trek across the border as soon as today. Although it is unclear what result, if any, a Montana hearing later in the month may have on the situation, Canadian ranchers, packers, truckers etc. are certainly nearer the end of the tunnel today following yesterdays court decision and the discovery of a US grown BSE infected cow earlier last month.

Since the border closed to Canadian beef in May of 2003 the case to reopen has, I think, been based on these claims: Canadian testing is working, Canadian beef is as safe as American beef due to years of crossborder trade, the risk of contracting BSE from eating beef is virtually non-existent. The argument for keeping the border closed has always been safety, though accusations that US cattle associations, such as R-CALF are engaging in nothing more than protectionism to the detriment of the Canadian industry, as well as some US packers and shippers have been made. I am glad that the beef will soon be moving again, but the decimation of the Canadian beef industry is not the only story we should have followed since the first case of BSE was discovered in Alberta. I would suggest that the fallout from the BSE crisis has demonstrated a failure of the Canadian governments, provincial and federal, as well as a failure of the cattle industry to anticipate and prepare for such an event. After all, we had been on the opposite side of the equation before, with respect to Britain, Japan, and Brazil.

The official line has always been that Canada is a low risk country, meeting or exceeding OIE guidlines. But sometimes OIE guidelines are not sufficient to overcome trade politics, and sometimes international organizations and governments misuse science to set standards favorable to industry, making short term economics a higher priority than long term safety. This has certainly been true of international organizations and our government with respect to genetically modified agri-foods where the concepts of ‘familiarity’ and ‘substantial equivalence’ were adopted by the OECD and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and then passed off on citizens in Canada as being based on science and ample justification to ignore debate on GMO issues. Is there an analogy with the BSE issue? I am honestly not sure, but I no longer take the federal government as an authority on scientific issues after researching the federal biotechnology strategies of the 1980’s and 1990’s.

Given the certainty of safety with which our politicians speak it is amazing at how little is known about prions, BSE and variant Creutzfeld-Jakob disease. The origin of BSE remains in debate. There is no test to detect BSE in live animals. A 2002 study (Bosque et al.) showed abnormal prion protein present in the musculature of mice, suggesting that contraction of vCJD might be possible from eating beef, even after the removal of neural and lymphatic tissues. Now that the border is reopen, it is important that BSE science remain a priority for our government, the cattle industry, and people like myself who eat beef nearly once a day.



  1. Friday, 15 July 2005 at 1:45 pm

    Manatee dropping some science!

    You always have to be worried about the government line when they constituents biting at their heels. But I’m confident that independent scientists bear it out.

    From CBC News Indepth:
    “I think we should not be worried,” Dr. Neil Cashman of the Centre for Research on Neurodegenerative Diseases at the University of Toronto told CBC News. “It is estimated two million infected cattle went into the human food chain in the United Kingdom alone in the ’80s and ’90s… This has to date only affected 130 people. That’s tragic, of course, but if you compare the number of people affected with two million infected cattle, then you look at Canada’s single isolated case or at most a few isolated cases, the risk looks minimal.” (To date we’ve had four cases).

    There is no doubt that there’s a higher risk in the lymph, spine, etc. The best available scientific evidence indicates that whole cuts of meat without the bone, such as steaks and roast, provide a lower level of risk of potential BSE contamination than do processed products such as sausages, burgers or patés.

    So basically eat steak and prime rib. No problem there!

    I recall the summer mad cow first broke, I was living in Quebec. Everyone was freaking out, but no one looked at the details of the matter. This is the same sentiment that drove border closures in the US, basically an overreaction to North America’s first case when no one knew anything about it. I cooked up giant $1 steaks all summer as the market bottomed out, because the science was available then.

  2. Manatee said,

    Friday, 15 July 2005 at 4:08 pm

    Thanks for posting, Sheamus. I noticed a comment you had posted on another blog, recognized your name as that of my SU President during my first year at the UofA and have enjoyed your blog ever since.

    I’m sure the majority of the scientific community would support the quote you’ve provided. However, considering how little is really known about CJD, I will continue to keep my ear to the ground for any future gains in knowledge, and hope our government does too.

    My general distrust of governments with respect to scientific issues has been born in part by the following sources, if anyone is interested:

    Abergel, Elisabeth and Barrett, Katherine. “Putting the Cart Before the Horse: A Review of Biotechnology Policy in Canada.” Journal of Canadian Studies 37-3 (2002): 135-161
    (couldn’t find a link)


    A Royal Society of Canada report:

  3. O'Smiley said,

    Friday, 15 July 2005 at 4:54 pm

    I don’t know all of the science behind mad cow, but I know it is something to be scared of as it has single handedly destroyed the British cattle industry after 157 people aquired CJD. Just because it is difficult to catch doesn’t mean it should be taken lightly.

    Although it may be frustrating for the producers, I don’t think it is wrong for a country to prevent import of a product until the exporting nation proves it safe to the satisfaction of the importing nation. It can’t be argued though that R-CALF was anything more than a protectionist group.

  4. Manatee said,

    Saturday, 16 July 2005 at 9:53 am

    “It can’t be argued though that R-CALF was anything more than a protectionist group.”

    Well, they convinced one judge they were more than a protectionist group. No doubt the discovery of a domestic case has gone along way to discredit the relative safety risk of Canadian beef.

    O’Smiley, check out this link and see what you think of it.


  5. Manatee said,

    Saturday, 16 July 2005 at 10:02 am

    Actually, parts 1,2,and 3 appear interesting too, I’ll be give those a thorough reading.

  6. O'Smiley said,

    Monday, 18 July 2005 at 8:11 am

    Dude, learn how to make proper links.

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