This spring, a difficult chapter for the Canadian beef industry came to a close after almost two decades.
In late May, the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) Scientific Commission approved Canada as having negligible risk for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), moving from controlled risk status to the disease’s lowest risk level of transmission. This historic achievement was made possible through an extensive collaborative effort between the federal government and numerous industry stakeholders.
“It was 18 years, one week to the day of the first case of BSE, so getting back to negligible risk is really a milestone,” says David Moss, general manager for the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association (CCA).
For a country to achieve negligible risk status, it has to prove its last case of BSE was in an animal born more than 11 years ago and that it has implemented effective measures for surveillance and control. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) led this initiative and was responsible for submitting the application to change Canada’s risk status to the OIE.
Moss calls this “a very, very large effort and a monumental submission,” which required CCA, provincial beef organizations and several other stakeholders to play a role in collecting the necessary information for Canada’s application.
“One of the challenges was the way the OIE and specifically the European countries look at specified risk material, so that’s the components of the carcass that we deem at risk of carrying the prions of BSE,” he says.
“So we just had to build our case that how we do it in Canada and the U.S. and North America in general is just as efficient and effective, and obviously we were able to build that case strong enough that we got the negligible risk status approval.”
The international border closures that followed the first case of BSE discovered in Canada in May 2003 created an unmatched economic fallout for the beef industry. “Although difficult to fully quantify the direct economic impacts of BSE, between just 2003 and 2006, losses were estimated to be between $4.9 billion and $5.5 billion,” a CCA press release states.
As a result of these challenges, approximately 26,000 Canadian beef producers were forced to leave the industry from 2006 to 2011, leading to the conversion of more than 2.22 million acres of pasture.
Achieving negligible risk status allows Canada to initiate trade conversations around removing existing BSE-era limitations. The specific beef products with these restrictions, Moss explains, number in the hundreds and aren’t limited to food products.
“I’ll give you just one example: bone meal that’s used to build up a jaw when getting a tooth implant, let’s say. You can opt for cattle bone, ground-up bone product, to be used to build up the base,” he says. “We couldn’t use Canadian bone meal; you had to go and get New Zealand or some other country that had a different status.”
When it comes to foreign market access for primary beef cuts, countries such as South Korea, China, Taiwan and Indonesia still have trade limitations that reflected Canada’s previous status of controlled risk. “Now that we’ve got the negligible risk, we can go back to those countries, and we can’t tell them they have to change but we can now respectfully reopen those negotiations.”
CCA worked with CFIA and the Agricultural Market Access Secretariat to prioritize from which foreign markets to start removing trade restrictions, focusing on South Korea, China and Taiwan.
Closer to home, CCA plans to begin conversations with U.S. officials about removing current restrictions to exporting Canadian feeder cattle to the U.S., such as the requirement to brand feeder cattle with the CAN brand.
Updating the handling requirements for specified risk material (SRM) in Canadian processing facilities is another priority. “It ends up being about 40 to 45 additional kilograms of product that’s removed from a Canadian OTM — over-thirty-month animal — as compared to the U.S., and then the storage and disposal cost of that SRM is different than what the U.S. has to deal with,” Moss says, adding that the per animal cost to Canadian processors is much higher than in the U.S.
“In Canada, we’ve estimated that could be about $35 million additional costs in terms of removal, disposal and just dealing with the additional cutting around beef products to make them eligible,” he continues. “We’re working with the CFIA to look at that SRM review and to have a conversation about how can we align that closer to our competitors.”
While Moss notes that expanding market access and reducing costs are the key priorities here, there’s also a sense of pride in achieving this risk status.
“I think the work that came together for the industry to make this application to OIE and demonstrate our competence in cattle production in Canada and getting that designation is something that we as Canadians all need to be very proud of,” he says.
“It just opens so many doors for us now to have these conversations about trade, about aligning with SRM, about feeder cattle, that we’ve earned the right now to have these conversations.”