You can hardly blame cattle producers farming in the Riding Mountain TB eradication zone for being a little testy. Some of these ranchers have been mustering their cattle on demand for the required testing since the early 1980s. That’s nearly 30 years.
But when Co-operator reporter DanielWinters travelled to the area in the wake of the recent court convictions of two ranchers for failing to co-operate with federal officials, he found the issue runs much deeper than a couple of cranky farmers who don’t like the government telling them what to do.
These individuals have neighbours who are not only sympathetic, but who also have the same kinds of herd health issues that led to the standoff involving the police between Rodney Checkowski and CFIA officials.
Make no mistake. Checkowski broke the law, a law that is intended to protect the public from the spread of a serious infectious disease. CFIA was within its rights to enforce that law, and he has a duty to comply.
But it is also true that the law, sometimes, is an arbitrary ass.
Checkowski may have broken the law, but only after exhausting all available channels to communicate his concerns over the test used and the testing procedures, including correspondence with his member of Parliament and the minister of agriculture. Maybe this is about more than recalcitrance, especially when many of the producers in that area are also reporting similar episodes of animals wasting away, abortions, and declining overall herd health.
They worry that the tests cause some of these symptoms, and that the tests miss animals that may in fact have the disease. Their concerns have been largely ignored by their industry associations, which are so focused on maintaining export access they seem willing to sacrifice a few producers to keep the borders open.
And their concerns have been dismissed outright by the officials in charge.
The official view is that the tuberculin injected into the cattle to determine whether they have been exposed to TB is biologically incapable of causing cows to abort, or fail to conceive or causing infection. The unofficial view is that the herd health problems producers report are management related.
We’re not in a position to determine who’s right. But there is documented evidence to suggest that the standard testing procedures can result in false positive as well as false negative results.
According to a Manitoba Agriculture bulletin: “There are a few drawbacks with the CFT test. A small number of infected cattle in the very early or late stages of the disease and cows that have recently calved may test negative.”
The false negatives, which according to a government extension bulletin from Michigan can occur 15 per cent of the time, are a significant concern if eradication is the desired result.
These ranchers may be unsophisticated by way of academic credentials and they clearly lack the wherewithal to hire lawyers and lobbyists. There is also evidence to suggest they are stubborn to the point of irrational, reportedly refusing a provincial government offer to conduct free post-mortem testing to try to determine why their cattle are dying.
But that doesn’t take away from the fact that the RMEA is a special case in the livestock-disease management experience we have here in Canada – and it presents both a need and an opportunity.
There are few, if any, episodes in our history, in which testing has continued on an ongoing basis for three decades, or in which the same herds have been repeatedly subjected to screening.
It is also questionable whether the animal health regulations behind these protocols were drafted with such extended time frame in mind.
Disease containment and eradication are usually brief and ruthless. Infected herds are quarantined. Officials swoop in, stamp it out, pay compensation for slaughtered animals and move on.
Compensation for lost animals is one thing. But what about the cost of mustering them for testing? If it was once or twice, producers might be willing to absorb it, but is it fair to ask them to do this repeatedly? It becomes a cost to their operation that producers outside the zone don’t bear – yet producers across the country benefit from its disease-free status.
And what about the psychological effects of living with the constant threat of having your operation shut down indefinitely? Maybe some of these producers are becoming fed up and a little unreasonable. Maybe they want more by way of compensation. Who wouldn’t?
The CFIA can pull out the rule book and keep calling in the cops, but until someone addresses these ranchers’ concerns in a way that re-establishes the agency’s credibility and fosters a cooperative working relationship – they are only feeding the growing resentment.
There are now three producers who have been charged with failing to co-operate with the testing program. Where does it stop? [email protected]