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Mad Cows and Foot and Mouth Disease While livestock diseases devastate European farmers, Canada stands behind the safety of its farming practices, for farmers and consumers In the past few months, European farmers and ranchers have been forced to des

Mad Cows and Foot and Mouth Disease

While livestock diseases devastate European farmers, Canada stands behind the safety of its farming practices, for farmers and consumers

In the past few months, European farmers and ranchers have been forced to destroy or wholesale slaughter hundreds of thousands of animals in an attempt to stop the spread of livestock diseases.

The latest outbreak of Mad Cow Disease (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy and the recently diagnosed Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease) hit England and spread into other parts of Europe resulting in the slaughter of all cattle 30 months of age or older. It also prompted the European Union to ban feed made from animals parts across the continent. About 90 people have died of the disease since the first major outbreak in the mid 1990s, 80 of them from Britain.

Now, with European countries still wondering what to do with tens of thousands of slaughtered cattle stockpiled in refrigerated warehouses, along comes Foot and Mouth disease, also originating in Britain. Foot and Mouth attacks sheep, goats, pigs and cattle, and is highly contagious. Livestock culls are taking place across England and Europe, and officials estimate that the cost of the damage could run into tens of billions of dollars by the time the disease has played out. It has spread so rapidly that nobody has had the time to do the math.

The disease is extremely hard to contain. It can get airborne, and some are saying it flew across the English Channel to affect livestock in France and Belgium. It can also travel on the soles of shoes, car tires, the backs of trucks – anything that comes in contact with the disease has to be sterilized.

The threat is so great that American state officials are suggesting for quarantines or disinfectants be used on all airline passengers from Europe. Vancouver International Airport installed disinfectant carpet this week as part of a federal government push to keep the disease out of Canada.

Our neighbours in Washington are debating that very thing right now, installing a kind of disinfectant foot bath at the airport terminal. They have already issued a warning to people not to visit farms, ranches or zoos if they have stepped off a plane from Europe in the last 30 days.

Dogs which would ordinarily be used to sniff out drugs and explosives are now being used to sniff out undeclared meat in baggage that could be infected with Mad Cow or Foot and Mouth.

It takes a crisis on this scale to prompt people to wonder just how safe their food is from a supply and health point of view.

Although he didn’t mention Mad Cow Disease or Foot and Mouth Disease, federal Agriculture and Agri-Food Minister Lyle Vanclief announced a $500 million package for the farm sector on March 1. If provinces match the funding using the usual 60-40 method, the new funding could total $830 million.

The funding has not been earmarked for any one aspect of Canada’s agricultural sector, but to address unspecified challenges facing the farming sector.

This includes farm subsidies and marketing of Canadian goods which have suffered at the hands of globalization – Canadian farmers just can’t compete price-wise with third-world producers and the heavily subsidized Americans.

One of the features of that marketing campaign will be the safety of Canadian products.

"We want to brand Canada as a leader in the environmentally-friendly production of safe food products and set the standards for the world," said Vanclief.

"We want to adapt to the changing realities and find a competitive advantage based on meeting the increasing demands of consumers in Canada and abroad."

One of those demands is for safer food. The success of Canada’s organic farms is a testament to this, with supply and demand growing by about 20 per cent each year for the past decade. Since both Mad Cow and Foot and Mouth diseases are attributed to factory farming methods, it makes sense that people would look to organic farming methods as a sensible alternative.

The Certified Organic Association of B.C. is currently taking steps to ensure that provincial standards are on par with the toughest organic standards in the world. And while many organic farmers are fortunate to have all the customers they need at home, some farmers sell to the U.S. and Europe.

While Canada shouldn’t have a problem promoting all of its food as a safe alternative in other countries, genetically modified (GM) foods are the wild card in a deck that should be stacked in our favour.

Europe has already condemned Canada’s GM practices on the grounds that not enough testing has been done on the long-term effects and that Canada does not label GM foods. GM food production has already been outlawed through most of Europe, and GM products have to be clearly labeled.

Canadian agriculture exports to Europe are low, representing less than 6 per cent of all food exports. If the GM issue can be resolved, Europe could be the next big market for Canadian meat and produce.

The Royal Society of Canada (Canadian Society of the Sciences and Humanities) recently met to discuss the regulation of GM food in Canada and concluded that more independent testing would be needed and that there should be a moratorium on GM fish on Canada’s coasts. They recommended that the government lose the secrecy surrounding GM foods – make test results public and make it mandatory to clearly label GM foods that pose any risk to the population. Voluntary labeling of all GM content is also recommended to give consumers the right to make their own decisions.

Agriculture and Agri-Good Canada will evaluate the Royal Society report and adopt many of the recommendations. Some of the new funding could go towards initiatives in the report.

"With this funding in place we must now focus on our ability to compete over the long term," said Vanclief.

In fact, in light of Mad Cow and Foot and Mouth, the European Union’s Farm Commissioner is advocating a return to small-scale organic farming operations.

"The BSE crisis demonstrates the need for a return to farming methods that are more in tune with the environment," said Franz Fischler. Although that would result in decreased production, the current global trend of overproduction is driving prices down and putting farmers who aren’t part of global distribution networks out of business. If not he said "we would build up a beef mountain we could not deal with… we have to find a new direction."

European governments are spending billions of dollars to refrigerate and process meat from animals culled as a result of the Mad Cow scare, and will likely have little room left over for animal culls as a result of Foot and Mouth.

At the same time, consumers seem to have lost their taste for beef and other meats, which is driving the value of this stockpiled meat down even further. Frustrated farmers in England have retaliated by marching to government offices and hurling eggs at the windows, and farmers in Belgium have blocked traffic in and out of Brussels to pressure the government into giving them some sort of compensation.

So far Canada has been spared, but international scientists are saying that Canadians could be at risk because current testing of domestic beef is inadequate and the disease has a five-year incubation period.