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Mad Cow provides opportunity to improve system

by Paul Beingessner
Saskatchewan farmer

(Friday, May 30, 2003 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- Rene Descartes, 17th Century French philosopher, convinced himself of his own existence when he said, "I think, therefore I am". Good thing he didn't say "I think logically, therefore I am". If that were the case, most humans today would have trouble proving their reality. At least, it appears that way in the aftermath of the Mad Cow scare in Canada. Reaction by the general public has been a textbook case in irrationality.

Most of this irrationality revolves around our perception of, and reaction to, risk. Are Canadians at risk because one cow out of the 15 million in the country had Bovine Spongiform Encephalophy (BSE)? No scientist would say an absolute no to that question, but what is the level of that risk? In Great Britain, it is estimated that between 2 and 3 million cows with BSE were fed to the population before the link to variant Creutzfeldt Jakob Disease (vCJD) was discovered. In the 10 of so years since, there have been 130 cases of vCJD among the 60 million people in the country. When this all began, some scientists predicted there would be millions of cases. Not are there likely to be many more, despite the long incubation period for the disease. The number of new cases each year is falling off rapidly.

The regular form of Creutzfeldt Jakob Disease, called sporadic CJD, affects about 60 people each year in Britain. This is not caused by eating anything, as near as scientists can tell. They suspect it is caused by a spontaneous mutation in the victim's brain.

Obviously then, even if there are barns full of BSE infected cows out there, the risk to Canadians, or North Americans, were they all to be eaten, would still be small beyond imagining. I am more likely to be killed by my computer monitor exploding as I write this.

All of which simply proves that people are seldom afflicted by fits of logic. But, given this reality, the important question is how farmers, scientists and governments should react to Mad Cow Disease. The starting point is to assume that perception, unfortunately, is reality. Telling the customer he is wrong won't get you far.

If Canada is to recover from this economic nightmare, we have to do the right things, and even more importantly, be seen to be doing the right things. We should start with a ban on the feeding of sick animals, or any kind of animal, to other animals that we are going to eat. While there may be a ban on feeding cows to cows, there is no ban on feeding cows to pigs or pigs to cows. This may be scientifically sound, or it may not, but to the urban consumer, it is a revolting idea.

Lyle Vanclief was wrong, of course, when he insisted the BSE cow had not entered the food chain. She simply took the alternate route of going through a chicken. The optics of this are neither good nor appetizing.

Second, we need a recommitment to inspection in the food industry. The biggest threat to life from eating meat is not BSE. It is E.coli contamination caused by unsafe practices in packing plants. (Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta estimates 73,000 illnesses and 61 deaths per year in the U.S., mostly from contaminated hamburger.) Governments in Canada and the U.S. have increasingly moved towards self-inspection in the meat packing industry. HACCP, or Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point, is the fancy name for letting industry police itself. In the U.S., HACCP has meant that instead of inspecting each carcass as it moves down the production line, federal meat inspectors are now supposed to monitor how well the company is implementing its HACCP program. The General Accounting Office in the U.S. reported last year that 44 of the 47 packing plants it examined had food safety programs that "failed to meet regulatory requirements".

In the long run, a thorough examination of Canada's meat industry could do a lot of good. BSE may even turn out to be a blessing in disguise. If our politicians take this issue seriously, we might get to be the "best in the world" as they so often claim we already are.

Despite the gravity of this subject, there were at least a few moments of humor. Having all those urban people talking about cows gives farmers a rare chance to feel smugly superior. Like the radio host in Saskatchewan who innocently inquired if the eight-year-old cow was likely to have had any calves. No, sir, she hasn't even hit puberty yet...

(c) Paul Beingessner , (306) 868-4734 phone , 868-2009 fax