A recent mad cow disease scare in Alberta likely won’t affect the roughly 282 beef producers in Waterloo Region but as South Korea has shown by issuing an embargo on Canadian beef, there may be room for concern.
Sylvain Charlebois, professor of food distribution and policy at the University of Guelph, says this is Canada’s eighteenth native case of mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE).
“This time around it can be a source of concern because we just don’t know the age of the animal and this is a key piece of information not only for the cattle industry, but for the international markets,” Charlebois said. “If the animal was born after 2007 it means the ban was not as effective as we thought it was or something else is happening. We probably wouldn’t have an answer to that if something very awkward would be happening.”
He noted another source of concern is if the animal is younger it may actually compromise Canada’s chance to be a very low risk country when it comes to BSE. We were in the process of getting the lowest level of risk for BSC but that’s been halted by the case in Alberta.
“That has an impact on prices obviously,” Charlebois said. “Anyone who wants to sell cattle to the market, if you’re selling Canadian beef, that greatly affects market value.”
This is the first case of BSE in Canada since 2011. Around 180,000 cases are found worldwide annually.
While he wasn’t overly surprised by the news about South Korea, he says if you would have asked him to pick a country that would react to the news in such a way, he would have picked that one.
“They are known to be highly sensitive to anything BSE-related,” Charlebois said. “It took nine years for them to lift the ban on our beef going back to 2003. There’s a track record there. Whether or not other countries will follow suit, we don’t know.”
It’s been reported the infected animal was born in Alberta. Charlebois says it’s concerning that they still don’t know the age if they determined where it was born.
“I am concerned because we just don’t have the proper traceability system to be able to produce data to ensure international markets,” Charlebois said. “The more we wait, the more likely we’ll make some people nervous.”
He says the key here is the U.S. and he’d be shocked if they actually decided to ban Canadian beef from being imported. If that happened, it would likely affect the cattle industry in Waterloo region.
“It’s unfortunate that this potentially could halt a good period for the cattle industry,” Charlebois said.
BSC is believed to happen when cattle consume protein from the brain or spine of infected cattle or sheep.
Joe Hill, feed lot director in Wellington County for Beef Farmers of Ontario, said the Canadian trade partners are aware that the occasional case of BSE is well within normal activity. Now they’re just waiting for the results of the investigation and he expects production to proceed as normal.
“If the packers end up with any extra costs they would probably pass that on to the producers. That’s not likely to be significant,” Hill said.
He added there’s no direct effect on local cattle farmers from this hopefully isolated case in Alberta. He said their current status internationally is they would expect to see the odd case pop up from time to time until it’s fully eradicated.
“Right now it’s just a matter of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency going through their investigation procedure and determining the point of infection and isolating any animals in theory that could have been infected and making sure none of them actually are infected,” Hill said. “There really should be no lasting effect other than it does make everybody a little nervous.”
To ensure the safety and stability of the beef market, especially after the mad cow disease cases damaged beef sales in 2003, Hill says they’ve enhanced their feed ban, which has been in place since 1997. They also have a testing program in place where they test about 30,000 animals a year which are deemed high risk. That’s been done since 2004.
Beef and dairy farms make up 38 per cent of all farms in Waterloo Region.
“As an individual producer the risk is minimal and really it’s just everyone following the rules. We’ll have the anomaly pop up every few years, there might be one or two cases at some point in time in the future until there’s complete eradication,” Hill said.