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Patience Wears Thin

As a general rule, cattle producers take the long view. They don’t have much choice given the growth rate of the animals that are their equity and their livelihood. But everyone has a limit and a couple of recent items in the news were enough to test the resolve of even the most patient producer.

The first item was a notice by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency urging producers to submit suspect cattle for BSE testing. It has already been seven years since BSE was first detected in an Alberta cow and it seems it will still take several more years of surveillance before we can completely remove this stain from the Canadian herd.

Brian Evans, Canada’s chief veterinary officer, was recently quoted in a Canadian Cattlemen’s Association newsletter as saying that support for the national BSE surveillance program will play a key role in demonstrating the effectiveness of the enhanced feed ban that came into effect in July 2007. Following the rules laid down by the OIE, the World organization for animal health, the CFIA will start its review of the feed ban in 2012.

If that doesn’t seem too long to you, keep in mind that the review is only the first step in regaining a clean slate as far as BSE is concerned. According to the newsletter Canada won’t be able to claim that it deserves the lowest rating for BSE until the cattle born in 2006-07 reach the six-, seven-and eight-year old range.

At the moment Evans is concerned about the number of dead, down, dying or diseased cattle over 30 months of age that are being submitted for testing. Test numbers declined 13,598 to 48,808 in 2008 from 2007 and slipped again to 34,618 in 2009. That was getting pretty close to the minimum target level of 30,000 set back in 2007. To July this year the government tested almost 23,000 head, which is in line with last year’s numbers raising the possibility of slipping below the target by the end of the year.

The fact that Canadians have been killing cows at a furious rate for the past few years is one possible explanation for this drop in the testing numbers. Another is the price of cows. At the time of writing, cows in the West were trading up to $54 a cwt so there is a lot more incentive to ship any older beasts before they reach a state that would qualify for BSE testing.

Alberta is still paying $225 to producers who submit four-D cows between 30 and 107 months of age or ones that are acting suspicious. CFIA offers $75 to offset disposal costs and $100 to cover the vet charges to test these cattle.

It’s sad to think that we might have to wait until 2014 to once again join the list of countries that can claim the lowest BSE status. Of course, that still might not be good enough to regain full access for Canadian beef in countries like South Korea. We have already taken that country to the World Trade Organization (WTO) to try and get them to recognize the trading rules established by the OIE.

In September Canada was back at the WTO once again, this time with Mexico, to argue the case against the U. S. regulation imposing country-of-origin labelling (COOL). This is the other issue that is bound to try the patience of cattlemen.

We have been living with the reality of COOL since September of 2008. The final rule that was passed in March of 2009 eased the restrictions somewhat but it still remains a thorn in the side of the Canadian industry.

It took until November to convince our government that the restrictions were severe enough to take the complaint to the WTO. Since then the cattle industry has invested heavily in gathering data to back up Canada’s claim that COOL does cause harm, and in fact is a trade restricting policy.

Canfax estimates the cost at $2.15 per cwt on a fed basis, or $25 to $30 for every fed animal sold in Canada.

As in all legal proceedings briefs and supporting documents were filed. In September oral arguments were made to the panel members followed by written replies to more questions from the panel. Another round of oral arguments and written replies will be starting in December with a decision expected in July 2011. The U. S. will no doubt appeal if they lose, and that could take another year.

Even if the U. S. does lose the case that may not be the end of it. As we learned from the long and tortured fight against the European ban on hormone beef, a win is never a win until the other country decides to accept it.

There are those who will question the CCA’s decision to invest so much of its shrinking checkoff capital in this fight. But really, if this arcane system is the only option available for settling trade disputes, what other choice do they have?

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Tradespats goon, andon

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