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Animal Disease and Regulatory Pride

15.nov.01, Justin Kastner and Doug Powell, The Food Safety Network

The United Kingdom’s problems with animal disease should serve as a reminder of the importance of regulatory vigilance. While it is legitimate for governments to take pride in keeping the likes of foot and mouth disease and BSE at bay, such pride should always be tempered by the humility that the worst can happen to any country.

Governments can look to Belgium and its regulatory heritage for the proper blend of pride and humility. Over a century ago, in the midst of the 1865-7 cattle plague that rocked Europe, Belgium found itself spared by the scourges of disease unlike many of its neighbours. As with foot and mouth disease today, the Belgians were quick to praise their own success in keeping the cattle plague under control. In fact, the Belgian Interior Minister, Mr. Van Denpeereboom, proudly noted that Belgium had lost just 2,300 head of cattle to the plague while England and Holland had lost more than 230,000 head to the scourge.[1]

While Mr. Van Denpeereboom had reason to be proud, he had more reason to remain vigilant. Then, as today, economic relations had spun a complex web of buying and selling animals and meat. The 1860s were a decade of free trade, and it was en vogue in western Europe to repeal customs duties on food imports. In 1860, Britain and England signed a “most-favoured nation” commercial treaty, agreeing to charge each other no more than the lowest import duties granted to their other trading partners. Two years later, in 1862, Germany signed a similar trade agreement with France, and Belgium joined the club by repealing its import duties on grain.[2] Commercial diplomacy such as this prompted increased cross-border trading in agricultural products, including cattle and meat.

By 1865 the ravages of the cattle plague were painfully obvious and demanded regulatory controls. In September of that year, a Brussels-based diplomat indicated how susceptible Belgium was to the cattle plague, by virtue of its trade relationships:

“The cattle plague, which is causing such great ravages in England, has appeared in this country [Belgium], having spread from Holland, where it was brought by some Dutch cattle sent to London for sale, and reimported.”[3]

This susceptibility motivated Belgium to quickly prohibit “the entry and transit of cattle, (in certain parts sheep and swine,) hides, fresh meat, and offal, hay, straw, and manure, at the maritime frontiers and the land frontiers.”[4]

These measures, along with restrictions on cattle markets and fairs, resulted in Belgium’s success at keeping the cattle plague under control. However, the Belgian Interior Minister did not capitalize on England’s and Holland’s failures and use their failures as a basis for boosting Belgian pride. Rather, Mr. Van Denpeereboom issued the following warning, in June of 1866:

“It is not impossible that some isolated cases [of cattle plague] may still appear in [in our country]. Those fears are only too much justified by the experience of the past; they must make us persisted in the measures of precaution and vigilance which have enabled us to escape until now, at the cost of not very onerous sacrifices the ravages of a pestilence whose victims are counted elsewhere by thousands.”[5]

Mr. Van Denpeereboom was wise. He understood that regulatory success is like any other kind of success: always based on one’s most recent performance. All regulators should take heed of this, especially those European countries tempted to haughtily compare their animal health regulatory systems to those of Britain.

Notes and Bibliography:

[1] Reports from Mr. Van Denpeereboom are available from: "Diplomatic Correspondence Paper No. 365: Mr. Sanford to Mr. Seward, June --, 1866," Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States, (1866). and "Diplomatic Correspondence Paper No. 416: Mr. Sanford to Mr. Seward, March 22, 1867," Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States, (1867).

[2] For a summary of these free-trade events in Europe, see Herbert Heaton, Economic History of Europe, ed. Guy Stanton Ford, Revised Edition ed., Harper's Historical Series (New York, New York: Harper & Row, 1948) pages 641-43.

[3] "Diplomatic Correspondence Paper No. 309: Mr. Sanford to Mr. Seward, September 13, 1865," Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States, (1865).

[4] "Diplomatic Correspondence Paper No. 344: Mr. Sanford to Mr. Seward, February 12, 1866," Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States, (1866).

[5] Quote taken from Mr. Van Denpeereboom’s 8 June 1866 letter, in "Diplomatic Correspondence Paper No. 365: Mr. Sanford to Mr. Seward, June --, 1866," Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States, (1866) .

Bibliography:

"Diplomatic Correspondence Paper No. 309: Mr. Sanford to Mr. Seward, September 13, 1865." Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States (1865): III, 92.

"Diplomatic Correspondence Paper No. 344: Mr. Sanford to Mr. Seward, February 12, 1866." Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States (1866): II, 63.

"Diplomatic Correspondence Paper No. 365: Mr. Sanford to Mr. Seward, June --, 1866." Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States (1866): II, 66-67.

"Diplomatic Correspondence Paper No. 416: Mr. Sanford to Mr. Seward, March 22, 1867." Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States (1867): I, 623-27.

Heaton, Herbert. Economic History of Europe. Edited by Guy Stanton Ford. Revised Edition ed, Harper's Historical Series. New York, New York: Harper & Row, 1948.