Cattle industry sharpens gaze on Asia with steps toward BSE risk downgrade

A jump to BSE-negligible status would dovetail with the beef sector’s plan to grow market share in Asia, where some of the last restrictions against Canadian beef still remain

“We’d like to hopefully close this chapter off and get rid of all the remaining restrictions related to BSE and put that behind us once and for all.” – Dennis Laycraft, Canadian Cattlemen’s Association

The Canadian beef sector’s trade goals for Asia may be about to hit a new stride, given new hopes for a downgrade to Canada’s international BSE risk status.

In mid-March, the federal government announced that Canada’s application to the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), which would move Canada’s status down to BSE negligible, had passed scientific review, and would be voted on by the OIE’s assembly of delegates in late May.

The new status would help secure new access to currently restricted markets, the federal government argued in a March 12 release.

Why it matters: Canada may be about to shake off the last trade shadows of BSE.

Canada’s beef sector has earmarked Asia as a top region for possible market growth.

“Right now, China has become the world’s largest importer of beef,” Dennis Laycraft, Canadian Cattlemen’s Association (CCA) executive vice-president, said, although he noted that trade with China still has challenges unrelated to restrictions around BSE.

The CPTPP (Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership) has, likewise, raised optimism for Canadian beef in regions like Japan or Vietnam. The 10-country trade agreement promised greatly reduced or eliminated tariffs on fresh, chilled and frozen beef, as well as offal, for those two regions.

The industry also has a close eye on markets like South Korea and Taiwan, Laycraft noted.

At the same time, some of those countries are among the last holdouts to carry restrictions on Canadian beef, following the BSE crisis of 2003-05.

“In those cases, we’ve been restricted to under-30-months beef, which is our graded heifers and steers that we produce, the high-quality beef,” Laycraft said. “But as far as mature animals, we haven’t had access.”

Offal, likewise, has run afoul of trade restrictions in certain Asian countries.

China is among the countries to still limit beef from cattle over 30 months old, beef offal, as well as ground beef and other beef byproducts, while South Korea maintains restrictions against beef intestines, ground and processed beef and mechanically recovered or separated products. Thailand limits Canadian beef to boneless products from animals less than 30 months old, while beef bound for Taiwan faces similar barriers against ground beef, internal organs or meat from mature cattle.

In 2019, Japan announced that it would lift restrictions on Canadian beef over 30 months of age, restrictions that had been in place since 2013, and that had previously been even tighter in the aftermath of Canada’s BSE crisis in 2003.

The OIE has considered Canada a controlled-risk BSE country since 2007 — a status currently shared with Ireland, Greece, France, Ecuador, Taipei and parts of the United Kingdom. The agency classifies countries as having negligible, controlled, or undetermined risk for BSE.

Should Canada’s application be approved, it would join countries with the lowest official risk status for the disease — a list that includes the U.S., Japan, India and most of China.

Federal Agriculture and Agri-Food Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau called the March 12 announcement, “an important step.”

“Although we still need to await the final vote, I am optimistic that this will soon allow them to expand their markets for cattle and beef exports to the U.S. and other foreign markets,” she said.

As well as mature beef and offal, Laycraft argued that a downgraded risk status might also open the door for inedible beef products — such as those bound for the pharmaceutical or cosmetic market.

Each of those new markets adds “a little bit of value back into every animal we produce,” he said.

“We’d like to hopefully close this chapter off and get rid of all the remaining restrictions related to BSE and put that behind us once and for all,” he also said.

The road so far

The application process up to this point has been involved, according to Laycraft.

Canada’s application was previously delayed, following a 2015 BSE case in Alberta in an animal born in 2009. Among the requirements for negligible-risk status, the OIE requires a country to prove an 11-year gap since the birth of the last infected domestic animal.

A feed ban and active surveillance program are other boxes to be checked off, Laycraft said.

Tissues that carry special risk of the disease have not been allowed in cattle feed since 1997, a prohibition that was extended to all animal feeds, pet food and fertilizer in 2007, and the federal government has implemented disposal guidance for those tissues for various levels of the sector, such as slaughterhouses.

Canada’s surveillance program, meanwhile, tested 22,280 cattle last year.

“We’ve had very, very strong multiple measures in place that has got us to where we are today,” Laycraft said.

Laycraft was “feeling good,” about the state of Canada’s application, he said.

The application successfully passed its scientific review in February of this year, something Laycraft noted is a key step towards approval, and is currently in a 60-day comment period.

“Which is normal procedure out there,” Laycraft said. “We know there was a huge amount of work that went in to make sure we put in the most complete application that we could put in. I believe we’ve got everything that’s needed to move to negligible-risk status.”

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Stockford

Alexis Stockford is a journalist and photographer with the Manitoba Co-operator. She previously reported with the Morden Times and was news editor of  campus newspaper, The Omega, at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC. She grew up on a mixed farm near Miami, Man.

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