EDMONTON, Alta. – This May, the movement of cattle across the border, an industry worth no less than $4 billion to exporters, ground to a halt.
All thanks to a single reported case of Mad Cow disease in Northern Alberta.
On May 20, Federal Agriculture Minister, Lyle Vanclief, confirmed a case of the disease, otherwise known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), had been detected.
Within hours the U.S. closed its border to Canadian cattle haulers. Shortly thereafter other countries including Japan, Australia, and South Korea had also banned Canadian beef imports. Within days, 19 farms were quarantined and hundreds of cattle in the three westernmost provinces had been killed and tested for the disease.
Meanwhile, livestock haulers such as Lacombe, Alta.-based Proudash were parking their trucks.
Proudash owner, Murray Ebeling, parked three of his four trucks the day following the Vanclief announcement, and was eagerly awaiting some positive news that would allow him to get his trucks back on the road.
“This is going to affect everybody,” he said. “If this carries on more than two weeks, then Western Canada and all of Canada will be in deep s***.”
Proudash doesn’t even haul into the U.S., but he was already feeling the pinch as auction markets and slaughterhouses closed their doors and cattleliners were being directed back to their point of origin. Ebeling feels the negative reaction wasn’t warranted.
He was just one of several livestock haulers contacted by Truck News who felt the border closure was an over-reaction that threatened his livelihood.
“There are eight million animals in Alberta and there’s one cow that got it – so far there’s nothing to worry about,” said Ebeling. “It’s been totally blown out of proportion. I would wait to see what the vets have to say.”
Whether or not Proudash will be able to rebound from the incident depends largely on “how long they close the border for,” said Ebeling.
As the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) worked feverishly to trace the infected cow’s history, Ebeling couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if the eight-year-old cow was born in the U.S.
John Vanee of Fort MacLeod, Alta.-based Vanee Livestock agreed the border shouldn’t have been closed to Canadian beef. Vanee is a 75-truck operation that hauls cattle across Western Canada and into the U.S. as well.
“It’s straight stupid,” said Vanee, noting the infected cow was killed in January and was prevented from entering the food chain. “It’s a good idea to check the neighbors out there and see if there’s anything more but they also say it doesn’t even go from one cow to the other so I don’t know what they’re worried about.”
When contacted by Truck News, Vanee estimated his company could hold on for about 10 days, but if the border closure lasted longer than that, there would be huge repercussions. Not just for Vanee Livestock, but for the entire beef industry.
“It’s going to have an effect on everybody who’s in the cattle business,” said Vanee. “The truckers are going to be stopped, the packing plants are going to have to lay a bunch of people off. It could cost billions of dollars.”
That estimate may not be far off the mark. Alberta alone shipped more than 500,000 live cattle to the U.S. last year, as well as $1.3 billion worth of processed beef. It’s also estimated the Alberta cattle industry creates more than $15 billion per year in economic spin-offs.
While carriers and O/Os contacted by Truck News tended to believe the beef ban was an over-reaction, Gordon Mitchell, a consultant with the Alberta Beef Producers, disagreed. He said the U.S. and other beef-banning nations were justified in closing their borders to Canadian cattle.
“We would do the same thing,” said Mitchell. “The action is actually legislated under World Trade Organization rules. They had to (ban imports) until we can clearly identify the scope of the problem and identify that we have it under control. They have to be responsible to their consumers.”
While news of the BSE case in Alberta will have far-reaching implications, Mitchell said Canadian officials are handling the situation well.
“The good news is that this is a very isolated case. It’s one animal and chances are it’s going to be very easy to quickly control and eradicate the problem,” Mitchell said the day following the diagnosis. “Our belief is that in a very short period of time the marketplace will get back to normal and our hope is that we can get the American border re-opened very quickly.”
But while Mitchell was optimistic things would soon be back to normal, life was anything but normal for thousands of Canadian truckers who encountered problems at the border.
Roger Roberge, owner of Roberge Transport, had about six trucks turned back from the Coutts, Alta.-Sweetgrass, Mont. border May 20.
“It’s affected us dramatically,” said Roberge, noting about 38 per cent of the fleet’s miles are run in the U.S. Roberge is among the biggest Western Canadian cattle haulers, with 146 trucks on the road.
“Everything’s on hold,” added Roberge. Unlike some of his counterparts, Roberge feels the U.S. was justified in shutting down the border, and he was counting on Canadian officials to do their part to convince the U.S. it was safe to re-open their borders to Canadian cattle.
Ironically, the Alberta Farm Animal Care Association (AFAC) had recently completed a border closure contingency plan, aimed at assisting livestock haulers in the event of a border shutdown like the one following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the U.S.
Susan Church, AFAC manager, said the association ensured cattle haulers had the plan in-hand during the closure.
“Our role has been minor at this point,” said Church, shortly after the border closure. “Everyone does have the plan in their hands at this point and we’re just monitoring the situation and making sure that animals aren’t being held without food and water for long periods of time.”
Cattle haulers weren’t the only ones feeling the impact of the beef ban.
In Ontario, garbage haulers were reportedly turned back from the U.S. border over concerns there may have been animal byproducts in the trash they were hauling.
And truckers hauling all kinds of loads were told not to pack lunches containing meat if they planned to cross into the U.S. The increased scrutiny, coupled with a heightened sense of security resulting from the recently elevated U.S. security alert, caused considerable delays at most Canadian border crossings.
The layoffs at packing plants predicted by Vanee soon became a reality.
They began Wednesday, May 27, when the Pasta Mill, an Alberta-owned producer of frozen pasta, laid off 100 of 134 employees at its north Edmonton plant.
About 85 per cent of the company’s business consists of exports to the U.S., according to operations manager James Stevens. Beef lasagna has been one of the company’s most popular products.
Two days later, Alberta trucking association officials, who’d been keeping stiff upper lips, finally admitted the situation for cross-border cattle haulers was nearing critical.
“The situation will become critical in two to three weeks,” said Kim Royal, executive director of the Alberta Motor Transport Association. “The carriers are losing money because they’re not getting a sufficient number of loads to fully utilize their equipment. The tractors and the drivers can be used to haul other goods, but the trailers are dedicated to livestock. Without a quick resolution to the closed border to cattle and meat products, carriers will be forced to reduce expenses to maintain their viability. These may include employee layoffs.”
No driver layoffs had yet been reported at the time of this magazine’s publication.
Nor had food-safety officials yet pinpointed the origin of the mad cow disease infecting the animal that sparked this latest export crisis.
Doing so could prove crucial to getting the U.S. to lift its ban on Canadian beef imports, said officials.
“Right now, it’s up to countries to decide for themselves whether or not they should lift the ban, based on the infor
mation they’re getting. For some, it might require knowing exactly what the origin of the infection was. For others it might not,” explained Gilles Lavoie, director-general of Market Industry Services Branch for Agriculture Canada.
According to Lavoie, the U.S. has not requested specifically that the origin of the infection be discovered. But the ban was still on as of the Truck News publication date.
And further investigation State-side revealed Canada’s infected animal had spent some time sharing living quarters with bulls later sold to stockyards in Montana and Dakota. U.S. federal authorities in early June announced five bulls were moved from a farm in Baldwinton, Sask. to one in Montana in 1997. It’s believed the lone animal that tested positive for mad cow disease spent some time at the Baldwinton ranch.
U.S. investigators said they didn’t believe these bulls were infected.
But Saskatchewan’s assistant deputy minister of agriculture Louise Greenberg says the connection may provide ammunition for U.S. critics who want to keep the border closed to Canadian beef.
As of publication, the ban on Canadian beef imports was also still on for Australia, Japan, South Korea, South Africa, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, the European Union, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Russia, Slovakia, Ukraine, New Zealand, Argentina, Brazil, Barbados, Chile, Columbia, Cuba, El Salvador, Peru and Mexico.
As of May 29, as much as $24- million of Canadian beef was being returned to Canada by countries fearful of importing mad cow disease, according to officials.
And as of early June, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency reported 1,500 cattle had already been slaughtered as part of the ongoing investigation into the origins of mad cow disease here in Canada.
According to the CFIA, all tests of carcasses so far have turned up negative for mad cow disease.
Early June also saw the arrival of international investigators to review the science behind the Canadian investigation into the origins of the disease.
Hopes were high the international review would result in the lifting of the ban, especially in the U.S.
But by mid-June, the ban had still not been lifted.
Federal Agriculture Minister Lyle Vanclief said he wasn’t making any promises about the ban being lifted or a final aid package for beef industry workers, even as he headed into a June 13 meeting with agriculture ministers from western Canada.
WHAT IS MAD COW DISEASE?
EDMONTON, Alta. – Mad Cow Disease, or Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) is a progressive, fatal disease of the nervous system of cattle.
The cause of BSE is unknown, and there is no treatment or vaccine available. Scientists have associated the cause of BSE with the accumulation in the brain of an abnormal form of protein called prion.
There is no test to diagnose BSE in live animals – a true diagnosis can only be confirmed by a microscopic examination of the animal’s brain following its death.
The disease cannot be spread from animal to animal, but it can prove fatal to humans who consume infected meat. Creutzfelt-Jakob disease is the term given to the form of the disease affecting humans who have ingested infected meat products.
Animals infected with BSE can live from three to six years before showing symptoms, making it a difficult disease to trace. Symptoms in infected animals include nervous or aggressive behavior, abnormal posture, lack of co-ordination or difficulty in rising from a lying position, decreased milk production, and weight loss despite an increased appetite. Often, the animal will exhibit these symptoms for several months before dying.
Scientists have suggested the disease has been caused by feeding ruminant protein products to cattle, a practice that has been banned in Canada and Great Britain, where BSE was quite common in the 1970s and 1980s.
Canada has only had one reported case of BSE in the past – it occurred in 1993 in a beef cow that had been imported from Britain.
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