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What do we have regulatory bodies for?

The ongoing ban of Canadian beef in the United States has been a major political issue in Canada for some time, with our government claiming they're working diligently to solve the problem. You might expect that that would include using the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to enforce the 1997 ban on using rendering ruminants in cattle feed. It's using these ruminants that causes mad cow disease, and though I personally don't think it's a big worry -- you're much more likely to get killed by E. coli from eating beef than getting Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease -- many other nations (particularly the Japanese) are terrified of it. And those that aren't terrified of it find it a useful excuse to set up trade restrictions.

So you might think the CFIA has been on the case, but you'd be wrong. This Wednesday, Sen. Kent Conrad, (D-N.D.), and Rep. Henry Waxman, (D-Calif.), wrote an open letter to Bush's Agriculture Secretary nominee, Michael Johanns, with some interesting news:

In that letter, Conrad and Waxman said they have learned that in the past 15 months, 17 Canadian companies have been blocked from importing products into the United States because the Food and Drug Administration found muscle tissue, animal hair, blood and bones in livestock feed. The prohibited items, considered to be protein products that might carry mad cow disease to other bovines, have been banned in Canada since August 1997.

Eight of the 17 companies remain on import alert status, according to FDA, with three of them failing to prevent contamination of cattle feed. They include Agricore United; Cereales D.L. Ltd.; Dawn Food Products; Landmark Feeds Inc.; Louis Dreyfus Canada Ltd.; Masterfeeds; Ritchie Smith Feeds Inc.; and Unifeed.

There's been a lot of noise in the past few days about a new case of mad cow disease that's been found near Edmonton, but I think the news that Canadian feed companies have been ignoring the rules that were intended to prevent mad cow disease is the bigger story. So where is the CFIA? Well they turned up Thursday and basically said that the Congressmen were right, and they've known for some time:
WINNIPEG (Dow Jones)--Federal tests have discovered that four brands of Canadian cattle feed likely included cattle or other ruminant parts in violation of a ban on animal remains designed to protect against bovine spongiform encephalopathy, commonly known as mad-cow disease, Canada's National Post newspaper reported Friday.

Sergio Tolusso of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency said in the article that the feed and feed ingredients were sold as being free of animal matter, but microscopic examinations detected animal material in 66 of 110 samples tested between January and March 2004.

Subsequent inspections of feed mills led officials to conclude "there were some cases where it was more likely than others that it could be ruminant protein," said Tolusso, the agency's feed program coordinator.

"We are looking at four cases where we thought it (feed) could be material of ruminant origin," he said.

The story doesn't answer the obvious question: whether there has been any action to shut down these cattle feed companies that are breaking the rules. Instead, the representative of the Canadian government made excuses for the violators:
Tolusso insisted there was little risk that the ruminant remains in the four tainted feeds were infected with BSE because the incidence of the disease in Canadian cattle is low.

Even if the feed did include BSE-infected material, he added, the cattle that might have eaten it "are not all 100% susceptible to disease for 100% of their lives.

"The chances of the disease being transmitted through the system with all these buffers in place are really small," he said, noting the government last year placed limits on the sale of beef brains, intestines, spinal cords, eyes and nervous tissues. Those so-called specified risk materials are the most susceptible to BSE infection.

I'm not so sure the Japanese or lawmakers in the US eager to maintain the beef ban will be quite as understanding as Mr. Tolusso. While he's probably right in his assessment of risk, the issue of mad cow is not governed by reason. Canadian companies broke the rules, and the CFIA knew about it and kept quiet about it until their infractions were discovered in the United States. This is serious.

And even now, when the news is public and the CFIA should be in crisis-mode, the attitude seems to be little more than a shrug:

Tolusso in the article said the four mills pinpointed by the study "responded with voluntary measures to improve the situation" after being visited by inspectors. No feed was recalled because the protein material was not positively identified as bovine.
This is going to kill the chance of getting Canadian beef accepted again into the United States. No matter what kind of 'good relationship' Paul Martin manages to build with George Bush, it won't be enough to counter the ammunition we've handed the protectionists in the US Congress.


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