Friday, 4 March 2005

Where's the Canadian beef?

Today’s New York Times has a piece in the business section looking at the effects of the Canadian beef import ban on both sides of the border—few of which are good unless you’re an American cattle rancher. It seems fairly clear (to me, at least) that the motivation behind those seeking to extend the ban is naked protectionism rather than concern about Americans’ health.

The small bit of silver lining in this is that, unlike on the steel tariffs, the president is on the right side of the issue, although there are many in Congress who aren’t.

1 comment:

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[Permalink] 1. TigerHawk wrote @ Fri, 4 Mar 2005, 8:05 am CST:

The beef industry has behaved absurdly through the entire “mad cow” period. Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) is not a statistically significant risk, notwithstanding reports in the fear-mongering press.

Consider: In England, which had cattle-feeding practices that were substantially unique, the mid-nineties BSE outbreak resulted in the slaughter of more than 4,000,000 cows. Of these, more than 200,000 were infected with BSE. It stands to reason that countless thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, entered the food supply before the problem was identified and acted upon. They were then chopped up into bangers—undoubtedly with all sorts of nerves and organ meat in the mix—because the English love their sausage.

These facts were considered very scary back in the nineties, and there were predictions that tens if not hundreds of thousands of Brits would eventually die of variant CJD, the human prion disease that (allegedly) comes from eating cattle infected with BSE. Naturally, the entire world panicked.

Fortunately, the scare-mongering predictions were laughably wrong. To date, only 156 Brits have died of vCJD. More tellingly, deaths peaked in 2000. People now think that the total deaths from vCJD in Britain will not go much over 200.

Now, CJD itself spontaneously (or apparently spontaneously) occurs in about one person in a million, and it is inevitably fatal. The variant form, allegedly from BSE, is the only form that is theoretically avoidable. If you run the numbers back o’ da envelope, it looks like the risk of contracting vCJD—if you lived in Britain during the height of the BSE scare—is one in four million, or one quarter the risk of regular CJD. This is a tiny percentage of lightening-strike risk, folks.

So now fast forward to the summer of 2003. One crummy Canuk cow falls over. Does the American beef industry take this golden opportunity to calm fears of BSE? Does it take the high road and say “As far as we’re concerned, Canadian beef is as safe as it ever was. There is no meaningful risk to human health from BSE, as we have all learned from the British experience.” Did they get a couple of public health gurus to write articles for the NYT op-ed page explaining same? No. Why? Because they thought that this was going to be a great chance to ban Canadian imports. Fools.

The problem, of course, was that it set up the United States to have its beef banned when a case surfaced here, which was inevitable even though there is essentially no monitoring of the problem (and the DOA refuses even to permit slaughterhouses to screen for it). So what happened when an American case surfaced six months later? The world slammed its door shut on American beef, and there was more than one off-the-record snarky comment that we were only getting our just desserts. In this case, at least, they were right.

The American beef industry never thinks even one step ahead. It has the most lunk-headed strategic thinking imaginable. ARRGGGH!

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