SOUTH DUNDAS - The opening of the Japanese border to select Canadian beef, increased domestic slaughter capacity and marketing benefits of Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology are helping Canada's cattle industry slowly move forward two and a half years after the first case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in Canada.
While Japan, Canada's third-largest beef market prior to 2003, opened its border to beef from cattle verified to be less than 21 months old, and the US is accepting live cattle under 30 months headed directly to slaughter or to feed and then slaughter, older cows and breeding stock are still not leaving the country.
As the market tries to recover, perhaps one of the biggest lessons coming out of the BSE crisis is that relying so heavily on one export market is risky, and it is even more risky when that market is the US, where politics seemed to take precedence over science.
Purebred Limousin breeder Ron Wilson of South Dundas Township believes Canadians have learned to be wary of US officials.
He feels Canadians gave Americans too much credit when they said they would publish a rule to open the border a year ago instead of pressuring them in negotiations, and the rule was overturned.
"We should be less naïve respecting US intentions and more specific and demanding in our negotiations," he said. "You can't take them on their words."
Wilson believes if trade and OIE guidelines were more enforceable, multi-year market disruptions might be avoided. He suggests making these guidelines actual requirements and says an international panel should study trade restrictions and release a binding ruling.
"If you gave them 60 days, you wouldn't have this ballyhoo for three to four years; you'd have a market disruption for 60 days, and it would be upheld by a scientific panel, not the political wishes of Americans," he said. "I think it would ease some of the disruption and justify the concerns instead of just using food safety.'"
Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs cow-calf specialist Nancy Noecker says the industry has done "extremely well."
"For a totally new experience, I think the industry did handle it quite well," she said.
Wilson says consumers worldwide recognize the inherent high quality and safety of Canadian beef, and producers thank them, and Canada has drawn praise for its openness in dealing with BSE based on science and animal health.
Although the message that Canadian beef is safe has gotten to the public, both Wilson and Noecker feel communication could have been handled better.
Wilson says national reporting was unbalanced at times and took things out of context, creating unnecessary doubt, while Noecker believes getting information to producers was a also a problem.
Both Wilson and Noecker believe some good has come out of the crisis, including increased domestic slaughter and meat processing capacity, which creates jobs in rural areas and opens domestic markets.
"I think the industry as a whole is much more aware of value-add and self-sufficiency," Noecker said. "We certainly looked at building more infrastructure, more value-add to the cattle and keeping processing money here and marketing the product."
The effect of border closures underscored Canada's dependence on exports and the US in particular. With that realization came efforts to diversify markets.
"Having it spread around offers more reduction of risk and opportunities to get it turned around in the long term," Wilson said. "One of the main advantages is that people from other customs eat other parts of the animal."
As markets re-open, Wilson says the appreciation of the Canadian dollar by approximately 35 per cent since 2003 has hampered recovery efforts and made Canadian beef less competitive internationally.
Wilson, who sells most of his cattle for breeding stock, has seen farm income losses of approximately $800 a head and says government programs, particularly NISA and CAIS, did not adequately address the magnitude and duration of the market collapse.
"Government programs didn't cover that," he said. "I also had increased costs at home. Nobody wanted to buy them, so I had to decide do I want to sell them at these give-away prices or do I have the feed capacity and space to keep more animals?"
Wilson kept the animals, and this July, if he had one more bred heifer, his herd would have doubled.
"I had more vet bills, more feed, more chances of loss," he said. "All of that doubling of my cows for a market that hasn't fully recovered and may not for many months."
Acknowledging the devastating times producers have been facing, Noecker does see some hope on the horizon.
"The American herd is at its smallest ever, so there's a draw for cattle in the States, and we have more capacity here," she said. "There should be more markets in the future."
Wilson says one positive that has arisen is recognition that with mandatory CCIA (Canadian Cattle Identification Agency) identification, Canada is among the world leaders in traceability.
After the discovery of BSE in Canada, the CCIA turned its focus to RFID technology, and as of September 1, cattle leaving the herd of origin must be tagged with CCIA-approved RFID tags.
RFID technology allows electronic reading of numbers without a line of sight and transmits trace back and age verification information from a national database.
Wilson says RFID tags will make identification cheaper and faster at the reading end, but they create more work and cost for producers.
CCIA communications coordinator Megan Gauley says producers will benefit from that extra cost.
"The tag is more expensive, but there is value added," she said. "Age verification is one. There are feedlots in the States that are saying they'll accept only RFID verification. We're working on North American harmonization. RFID is also the international ISO (International Organization for Standardization) standard."
With countries like Japan requiring age verification, Noecker believes RFID technology is beneficial, but the trouble is getting large numbers of producers to enter birth date information.
"If I was going to ship 800 pounds of tongue to Japan, I would send 800 tongues, and I would need 800 age-verified animals," she said. "That's why we need a lot of people to do it quickly. It's a tremendous marketing advantage."
Noecker believes the benefits to producers, feedlots and packing plants make the extra cost and work worthwhile.