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Defending America in a cow-eat-cow world

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“Schadenfreude” is when an individual takes pleasure in the misfortune of others. Although the word is German, the behaviour it describes is global, and it was alive and well in Canada when we learned the U.S. had discovered a new case of BSE. Facebook lit up like a Christmas tree as folks in the business on our side of the line started joyfully posting about how we ought to school them some by shutting down the border.

Really? Have we learned nothing at all? It is a simple economic truth that we need the U.S. more than they need us. We will not be able to change that unless we’re prepared to downsize our herd faster than a bull would shrink if he sat on an igloo.

And there are more complicated truths that cannot be ignored. An economic hiccup in the U.S. can feel like a tsunami in Canada — we just don’t have the density or volume to absorb as many big hits. And the BSE announcement came on the heels of the pink slime fiasco, compounding the fear of a virulent market recoil.

While some may have found it intensely gratifying to ride that irresistible high horse around the corral once or twice, it was entirely illogical. Why? The border was reopened to our UTM cattle in 2005, two years after BSE. America fully let us back in later in 2007, when OTM cattle were allowed to cross. Since that time, Canada has found another nine cases — and that’s while the border remained fully open.

As bitter and angry as many still are over BSE, that anger is misplaced when directed at the Americans. If anything, they’ve had a raw deal because of our BSE. Canada’s first positive case of BSE was discovered in 1993 — 10 years before the second case. The six-year-old cow was an import from the U.K., brought in when she was just six months old. America’s first case was in 2003, seven months after our first case. Wait! How can we have had two first cases? Simple — we never had to count the first one in our tally because it was an import.

America’s first case was in a six-year-old dairy cow that had been born, bred and imported from Canada only two years earlier. But this BSE cow was counted and immediately, export markets shunned America and all of her beef — no matter where it was born. There would only be three more cases in the U.S. — and all subsequent positive cases were atypical BSE, not classic BSE which is known to be spread through feed and is known to cause vCJD in people. In contrast, all but two of Canada’s cases have been classic BSE.

We really don’t know yet precisely what causes the two atypical strains of BSE. Some believe it is spontaneous, like the CJD that develops sporadically in humans and is not related to ingesting bovine BSE. But it is different, and we know for sure it isn’t the classic BSE that terrified beef eaters across the globe when we saw it rise like a new plague from the decimated ranks of the U.K. cattle business.

You know who else watched the BSE disaster unfold across the pond? Originally it was Agriculture Canada, but later the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). You know what they did? Absolutely nothing. In the U.K., the first BSE cow appeared in 1984, and the cause of BSE was first identified in 1986. In 1988, the feed connection was discovered and ruminant-to-ruminant feed was banned. All the while, we were still allowing like U.K. imports to come in.

Finally, in 1990, Canada closed its border to the U.K. cattle trade, and the plan to monitor the imports was as stupid as it was naive — imported cattle were supposed to be checked on every six months by a vet. A BSE-infected cow can go from symptomatic to death in eight weeks. There were no restrictions on slaughter, and no followup to ensure the cattle were actually being looked at. Many never were.

In 1993, the first BSE cow was found. Sadly, she was but one of 160 head imported between 1982 and 1990. The CFIA panicked, and attempted to find the rest of the imports they had so negligently failed to track. Only half were still alive. Eleven were exported to the U.S. and the others had made it into the human food chain and more importantly, rendered into the feed chain. It wasn’t until 1997 that Canada enacted its first feed ban — nearly 10 years after the U.K.

There’s a reason why the BSE class action against the federal government led by lawyer Cameron Pallett hasn’t gone away — the evidence of near-criminal ineptitude is overwhelming. The truth is that our government failed us, and the U.S. has never, ever had a case of classic BSE — unless you count the one we gave them. Indulging in a little schadenfreude may be fun, but it’s the furthest thing from fair.

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