Canada has been officially designated as negligible risk for Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) by the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE). The new designation should open up more international markets for Canadian beef and marks the end of the BSE era in Canada.
BSE, a progressive, fatal disease of the central nervous system in cattle, was a worldwide pandemic that devastated the cattle industry in the early 2000s. Canada discovered its first case in May 2003 and that led to international borders closing to Canadian beef. “This brought unprecedented hardship to our industry in the early 2000s,” said Bob Lowe, president of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association (CCA). “At that time, Canada exported 50% of the beef it produced; after BSE arrived here, no trade partners in the world would take it.”
The economic impact was significant; losses were estimated to be about $5 billion and there were additional costs for food processing. As a result, 26,000 cattle producers exited the industry between 2006-2011, leaving more than 2.22 million acres of range available for conversion to development. The environmental impact was nearly as great as the economic one.
CCA and the cattle producers used a combination of science and innovation to keep the industry afloat. “The science was used to convince people we had the right protocols and processes in place to ensure our beef was safe for consumption,” says Lowe. “We banned the use of animal proteins in feed and tested every cow that died of natural causes outside the processing plant. If a cow showed signs of the disease, they were euthanized and tested.”
The innovation resulting from the BSE crisis came in many forms and demonstrated the resiliency of the cattle industry. Lowe recalls some Alberta producers getting together to ship semi-trailer loads of hamburger across the country, selling it straight out of the trucks. “They had it all sold by the time they got to Winnipeg.”
“Luckily Canadian consumers stepped up to the plate,” recalls Lowe. “You could say we ate our way out of it!”
The United States, Canada’s major market for beef (70-80% of exports), also saved the day. “When they were convinced our beef was safe, they opened the borders for export.”
For many years, the OIE designated Canada as at minimal risk of BSE but there were still many countries that barred our beef. Minimal risk enabled the startup of exports of cattle 30 months or younger, though some countries used it as a reason to bar all Canadian beef.
The CCA worked with the Canadian government to obtain the negligible risk designation. First step was to wait the required 11 years after the last cow was diagnosed with the disease. It then took another two years to get the official designation, which was announced on May 27, 2021.
“This should take away the stigma against our industry and Canadian beef,” says Lowe. “Now we can go from country to country, negotiating Canadian beef exports and renew the trade relationships we had prior to the BSE crisis.”
“It is also a big relief for cattle producers,” he adds. “It was an emotional time, a psychological nightmare for us. Now people who haven’t thought of those hard times for a while are visibly relaxed. It should also mean that their costs will be reduced at the processing plants, since BSE testing is no longer required.”
Canada still has the requirement that 50 kg of product needs to be eliminated at the processing plant. (The US, still at minimal risk, only requires 1 percent.) “We’re working on this now,” says Lowe, “so we can have a level playing field with the US.”
“But for the most part, the work ahead will be removing the stigma against Canadian beef,” he adds. “The negligible risk status will be a convincing argument as will the fact that we have the best food inspection agency in the world.”
The United States has remained our biggest trade partner with 85% of Canadian beef and cattle exported there. But we are currently trading with many countries around the world in Europe, Asia, etc. Some at this stage only permit certain cuts of beef to be imported, but the CCA is working to change that. Their new global brand strategy, Canadian Beef Advantage, aims at full market access with trading nations based on the quality and safety of our beef. The new Negligible Risk designation will go a long way to support that.
And speaking of the world, there have been few cases of BSE confirmed anywhere in the world in the last 5-6 years, proof that science, collaboration and resiliency can overcome even the worst pandemic.
Canadian Beef Advantage (attributes that set us apart from competitors):
-high quality beef
-high yielding beef carcasses
-beef genetics among best in the world
-clean and environmentally-friendly production system
-world renowned cattle identification systems
-HAACP based food safety systems
-commitment to leadership and innovation
Farmwork to Feed Canada (F2FC) is a national volunteer not-for-profit initiative by Canadian communication professionals, students, and recent graduates in communications. F2FC collaborates with farmers, and agri-businesses amid COVID-19 pandemic-related challenges to Canada’s food supply and food security, to engage Canadians, pro bono, with compelling stories about their food system and build support for Canada’s farmers, food producers, and their essential skilled workers.