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On September 22, 2011 in Calgary, the Council of Canadian Academies released a report on Canada s capacity to conduct animal-health risk assessments into the 21st century.

The event will go unnoticed by many in the livestock industry and given only a cursory glance by a large number of people who support it; veterinarians included. The basic concepts of scientifirisk assessment and application of the science it encompasses are tedious and hard to understand. The academic label many tack on risk assessment quashes interest even though we, as humans, intuitively use risk assessment every day to navigate through life.

The value of developing the capacity to conduct animal health risk assessment accurately, consistently and in a timely fashion cannot be overstated. Nor can the importance of clearly communicating details of the process to stakeholders. Good risk management starts with intelligent and probing risk assessment. Without sound risk assessment at the front end, organizations often go astray right off the starting block to find themselves off track on issues years later. The byproduct of wrong assumptions and bad decisions early in the process of managing risk is discombobulation down the road.

Look at BSE. I think it is very safe to say that BSE should never have been an issue for the red meat industry had risk management been refined on both sides of the ocean. The foundation of preventing what actually happened would have started with sound risk assessment. Had the very things the Council of Canadian Academies recognized as weaknesses in Canada s risk assessment capabilities in 2011 been in force in 1994, a year after BSE was diagnosed in a British import on an Alberta ranch, the sorry play of politics, bad science and industry s aversion to change would have been forestalled. There is good reason to believe that the calamity a nondescript Black Angus cull unleashed in May 2003 could have been averted and saved the industry and Canada $10 billion in trade sanctions and disease-recovery costs, not to mention the incalculable toll the so-called BSE crisis squeezed out of the human spirit and people s ability to persevere.

In simple terms, risk assessment is nothing more than a systematic process that determines the likelihood an event might occur and the magnitude of consequences after exposure to a hazard. While risk assessment is science-based, it is not strictly a scientifiprocess and hence the requirement for sound and reasoned thought by people who understand all sides of an issue. Two key calculations are used to measure risk: one, the magnitude of potential loss; second, the probability that loss will occur. A third and critical step is carefully explaining the product of mathematics and logic to stakeholders so they become advocates in the risk management process. These elements were never in line during the maddening road to BSE.

The appearance of a novel animal pathogen that became known as BSE presented a number of interconnected risks to the nations whose herds came to be infected. There were actually three different risks present:

1. Animal health risk (the probability of occurrence and consequence of BSE in the national herd)

2. Human health risk (declared to be very low by Health Canada)

3. Socio-economic risk (to a broad cross section of society assuming even one case meant export trade would immediately collapse)

Although nearly a decade elapsed (1994 to 2003) from the first risk estimation to the appearance of the first case of BSE, in all that time the true risk was never fully and adequately assessed.

Economic policy between the first, crude, but insightful estimation in May 1994, and the more elaborate risk assessment published in December 2002, on the eve of May 2003, encouraged both expansion of the national herd and growth of the feedlot industry, especially in southern Alberta. Rapid expansion increased reliance on export trade with the U.S. Canada s exposure to the economic threat of a sudden and long-lasting border closure rose steadily and dramatically between 1994 and 2003. The dynamic character of Canada s unique risk profile was never captured in any analytical instrument used in the risk management of BSE.

The BSE story is but one example of how critically important risk assessment can be. One of the most dramatic and damaging events to ever have affected red meat production in North America came about because risk assessment and subsequent management of risk were skewed from the very beginning.

Preliminary guidance on BSE could have been provided as early as 1994, when Canadian authorities became aware there was a very high probability that BSE was incubating in the Canadian herd. That potentially devastating information was never made public (World Health Organization 2006).

Producers and the cattle industry were woefully unprepared for the events that started to unfold in May 2003.

Key findings by the expert panel chaired by Dr. Alistair Cribb, dean of the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, University of Calgary that would enhance risk assessment and managing animal health risks in Canada include: widening the range of consequences considered, expanding access to expertise, widen stakeholder consultation, transparency of decisions, improve means of prioritizing immediate and long-term threats.

The issue of who is responsible for carrying out effective risk management remains a contentious issues. Established practices would default most animal health risk management to federal authorities. Is it time to change?

Dr.RonClarkepreparesthiscolumnonbehalfoftheWesternCanadianAssociationofBovinePractitioners.SuggestionsforfuturearticlescanbesenttoCANADIANCATTLEMEN( [email protected])

orWCABP( [email protected]).

About the author

Columnist

Dr. Ron Clarke

Dr. Ron Clarke prepares this column on behalf of the Western Canadian Association of Bovine Practitioners. Suggestions for future articles can be sent to Canadian Cattlemen ([email protected]) or WCABP ([email protected]).

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