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Food safety without borders

25.may.04, Ben Chapman and Justin Kastner, Globe and Mail Page A23

25.may.04, Ben Chapman and Justin Kastner, Globe and Mail Page A23
Borders matter, even if only because people say they matter, when it comes
to North American food-safety policy.
That's one of the assertions we made in Ottawa last weekend at the
Organization for the History of Canada's Canadian-American Relations
The Canada-U.S. border, like all borders, contains and causes certain
political, social and economic realities. But food-safety and animal-disease
problems do not bow to borders. Consequently, farmers, regulators and
consumers on both sides must be vigilant. That means being honest about
food-safety risks, implementing strategies to manage those risks, and
keeping the public informed.
When it comes to the issue of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, or
mad-cow disease), U.S. interests should press for continued food-safety
vigilance and quit the blame-Canada discourse. For their part, Canadians
must accept that food problems lurk north, as well as south, of the border.
The mad-cow drama of 2003 illustrates the value of a pro-active approach on
both sides of the 49th parallel. Since May 20 (Canada) and Dec. 23 (United
States), the two countries have adopted similar risk-management approaches.
Most important, their federal regulators have avoided empty, "our food is
safe" messages.
Both countries are stepping up surveillance of high-risk animals,
encouraging open dialogues about the risks of BSE, and working out
regulatory firewalls, feed rules and enhanced inspection practices designed
to hedge against a British-style prion disaster.
Canada's and the United States' separate but parallel food-safety approach
is not surprising. Agricultural trade and scientific co-operation have been
hallmarks of Canada-U.S. relations.
As each other's most important trading partner, we have adopted similar
approaches to ensure the safety of the food supply.
Today, Canada's and the United States' economic partnership and scientific
like-mindedness are conspicuous in international forums, where the two
countries both advocate an evidence-based approach to food-safety risk
management. The two countries have adopted a common risk-analysis approach
to food-safety policy issues ranging from agricultural biotechnology to beef
In Ottawa,after talking with Canadian-American historians drawing on policy
comparison, historical scholarship and media analysis, we concluded that
borders do matter, whether or not livestock producers and trade officials
are border-conscious at the moment.
But we also believe that the way forward on BSE must be taken without
reference to the border. BSE is a poorly understood phenomenon, the
existence of which demands surveillance and regulatory sweat within each
Like other food-safety problems, BSE does not single out specific countries.
Of course, trade restrictions occur at borders, but country-specific
food-safety problems arise not because borders exist but because countries
fail to adequately monitor food safety. And that is what counts.
Ben Chapman is a research assistant with the Food Safety Network. Justin
Kastner, formerly of the Food Safety Network, is an assistant professor in
agricultural security at Kansas State University. Both have been known to
salivate over North American beef.