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The meat of the matter

Mad cow is back in Canada, and South Korea has now responded by halting all imports of Canadian beef.

The CFIA announced on Friday that it has confirmed a case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in a beef cow in Alberta, a first since 2011. The announcement was eerily reminiscent of 2003, when Canada found its first native BSE case that plunged an entire industry into a deep economic depression overnight. With this case, the entire Canadian Cattle Industry is still holding their collective breath. Korea's move is evidence that more information is needed to reassure markets, and fast.

To be clear though, the global food safety landscape is a different place than it was back in 2003. Depending how you count cases of BSE, this is likely Canada’s 18th native case, so we have a number behind us. Regulators and industry are more accustomed to manage these cases now. But most importantly, consumer perceptions have changed everywhere, and politicians are aware of that. We know more about BSE and its link to the human variant of mad cow, Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, a rare, fatal disease. Even if risks are awfully low, some nervous countries like South Korea remain highly cautious.

Back in 2003, BSE was a troubling unknown in the general consciousness. The U.S. was still BSE-free and Japan, a major export market for the U.S. and Canada, was just coping with the aftermath of its first native case a few years earlier. At the time, more than 100 McDonalds’ restaurants closed for more than a week and beef sales dropped 35% in a year. Markets were quite nervous at the time.

With more than 180,000 cases found worldwide now, countries are less likely to use BSE as an excuse to pull the trigger and issue embargoes against each other. Very few BSE-free countries remain. Norway recently found its first case and nothing happened.

In Canada, mad cow has never been regarded as a food safety issue by consumers themselves. Back in 2003, after Canada found its first native case, domestic demand for beef went up 5% within 9 months after the announcement, even if retail prices barely dropped. But internationally, the politics of mad cow are very different.

China is dealing with this issue right now in the wake of their baby formula scandal. When food safety is top of mind for consumers, science often takes a backseat to fear. Anxiety management often leads to irrational dogmatism.

According to a recent food safety survey, Canadians are the most trusting consumers in the world. Therefore, it is obviously difficult for many Canadians to understand how food safety situations can be so intricate.

Aware of the broader complexities, the CFIA is now frantically working to determine how the latest animal became infected and to trace out all animals deemed to be of equivalent risk so they can be destroyed. It may take weeks, perhaps a few months before knowing the true cause of this latest case. In the era of globalized food safety intelligence, time is of essence. Finding this confirmed case suggests that our system is working. It took just one week between the sample being taken from the animal in Alberta to the CFIA confirming the results. Back in 2003, the process took months. Nonetheless, we can’t get too complacent. Such a diagnostic should be supported by readily available data on the animal’s origins, age and feeding regimen to reassure markets abroad. Further delays suggest that our food traceability systems are lacking. In light of Korea's decision, to see other countries follow suit is not impossible, particularly if the animal is younger than when the ruminant-to-ruminant feed ban was implemented in 2004. It is believed that feeding cattle with meat and bone meal to previously uninfected cattle causes BSE.

As for consumers looking for a better deal at the meat counter, they will likely need to wait a little longer. The impact of this announcement on markets was muted given that is considered an isolated case. Retail prices won’t be affected all that much unless, of course, we find more cases in younger animals during the investigation. This may spell good news for consumers, but a nightmare for the cattle industry.

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