Friday, 27 April 2012

It Seemed Like the Right Thing to Do

It was a story that most people probably missed, fourth or fifth on a couple of radio newscasts, well inside any newspaper that cared to run it, and it's probably all the story deserved.

Case of Mad Cow Disease Is Found in U.S.
The Department of Agriculture announced that it had identified a case of mad cow disease, the first in six years, in a dairy cow in central California.
The cow “was never presented for human consumption, so it at no time presented a risk to the food supply or human health,” John Clifford, chief veterinary officer at the department, said in a statement........... "

This isn't what happened in May of 2003,nine years ago,  when one older black angus cow in Alberta was discovered with BSE or madcow.   There were huge headlines across North America, our bosses at CBC demanded that it lead every radio and t.v. newscast in the country for several days.  The discovery had a profound impact on the Canadian beef industry, farmers lost tens of millions of dollars, beef processors made windfall profits, and Canadian consumers (god bless them), ate more beef than they ever had,  and there's no province that the discovery had a bigger impact  on than PEI, an impact that continues to this day.

Beef producers lost money because the American border was closed, resulting in a  huge over-supply in Canada. Prices to farmers collapsed. That in turn allowed beef processing plants to buy cheap cattle, while Canadian consumers rallyed  to support farmers and prices at the supermarket didn't fall. That's what allowed the processing plants to make so much money.

Here in the Maritimes beef farmers were working on building a new federally inspected slaughter plant after the Hub operation in Moncton was shut down. Many thought there was an opportunity to capitalize on the headlines about madcow, and create a little marketing niche for a plant that everyone knew was going to struggle. It was going to be tiny compared to the big beef plants in Alberta,  so needed some kind of marketing edge. The plan was to go above and beyond the Federal regulations of separating out spinal cord, brain, etc (the risky bits) and only slaughter younger cattle (under 30 months).  Some high ranking agriculture officials even proposed having veterinarians inspect every brain and certify the beef  "BSE free".  The thinking was it might allow PEI beef to be sold in valuable markets in Japan and South Korea, where Canadian beef had been banned.  The beef industry in the rest of Canada had a fit, arguing if PEI promotes itself as "BSE free", then it implies consumers are at risk  buying beef slaughtered somewhere else. 

The "BSE Free" plan had other important implications. Hamburger is generally made from older beef and dairy cattle,  but with the PEI plant not accepting these older cattle, a hamburger machine was never purchased. (It has been now).

Fortunately for consumers and the Canadian beef industry the various steps the Canadian government took, increased surveillance of older cattle, keeping animal parts out of feed (that was a bad idea from the get go) and so on means madcow is now the uneventful story that we saw last week, with few people even noticing, 

Unfortunately on PEI the possibility of having a unique product but then discovering it had to compete in the beef commodity market with all the big boys, not having a hamburger line, all led to weeks, months and now years of losses that taxpayers continue to foot.  In the last two years huge steps have been taken to promote what really is unique about Maritime beef, coming from small farms and feedlots,  excellent breeding stock, and yes a hamburger line is now in place. Chefs have been recruited to promote the quality of the beef. It's going to need all of these attributes to survive now that the government has set a limit of a million and a half dollars of losses it will cover. (last year the plant lost about $3 million). 

You can't help but wonder if madcow hadn't been discovered back then, didn't have such a devastating impact on farmers incomes, whether the PEI government of the day  would  have even considered underwriting the new plant in the first place, or make revenue projections based on the idea of being the only plant in Canada offering BSE-free beef. Would it have led to more hard-headed thinking about the viability of a small beef plant in the Maritimes competing against the much,. much bigger competitors. As I've argued elsewhere in this blog I think the plant should have been built regardless of BSE, and is badly needed to maintain a livestock industry here now (the closest Federally-inspected plant is in Ontario), but some tougher, smarter decisions might have been made when the plant was built, and PEI taxpayers might be feeling more confident about the plant's future,if that one mad cow hadn't been found in Alberta almost a decade ago.

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