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Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Happy to be Canadian, food-safety-wise

When Canada saw its BSE case in the spring, people who followed the news learned a whole lot about the database tracking of individual ruminant animals, so that any outbreak of BSE (or, presumably, foot-and-mouth or something else) could be quickly isolated, the appropriate animals culled, and our food safety protected. It's not a perfect system, but it's an important tool in the effort.

After waging their own battles with mad cow disease, Europe, Canada and Japan instituted government-regulated mandatory systems to trace animals from their birth to the grocery. They also require extensive testing of cattle herds, not the small risk assessment used in the United States that tests 20,000 to 30,000 cows or about 0.03 percent of the herds.

The United States does not require or have such records. But Agriculture Department officials said they would now speed up a project to create a national database for tracing animals. The system would be voluntary; farmers and ranchers could decide whether to register their animals in the data bank.

"At some point this could become mandatory," Ms. Harrison said. [story here]
What point would that be? Would that be at the point where you're dealing with BSE? Because, first, uh, that's freaking NOW, you idiots!, and second, to use a pre-industrial farming metaphor, that's closing the barn door long after the mad cow has left. We started tracking cattle in Canada six years ago, and it wasn't early enough to trace the roots of our BSE-positive animal conclusively.

Go read the link - it has scarier parts, too:

Last year, the Agriculture Department tested processed products from plants that use advanced meat recovery systems, which are meant to strip the last bits of meat from close to an animal's bone and spinal column, and found that 35 percent of the meat tested positive for central nervous system tissue.

Canadian cattle producers insist that this American case of BSE is our big chance to reintegrate back into a single North American industry. But I'm starting to wonder if it wouldn't be better for the Canadian cattle industry in the long term if we closed our border to American beef, and focused instead on the overseas markets, where they understand something about food safety.

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