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Water Buffaloes Must Go

26.jul.02, Justin Kastner and Douglas Powell, Commentary from the Food Safety Network

The 14 remaining water buffaloes imported from Denmark by Darrel and Anthea Archer of British Columbia are, barring unforeseen trucking and protestor circumstances, slated to be removed from the Archer's farm Saturday to be killed and examined in Alberta.
This is undoubtedly painful to the Archers, disturbing to Canadians, and wonderful fodder for media types who have pronounced the Canadian Food Inspection Agency "bureaucratic" and "stupid."
Yes, CFIA can be both bureaucratic and stupid, but not on this one. The water buffalo must go.
After two risk assessments, CFIA relented somewhat and agreed that the water buffaloes -- imported from Denmark shortly before the first case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy or mad cow disease in that country -- must be destroyed and tested, but that the 30 animals born in Canada will remain in quarantine on the Archers' Cowichan Valley, B.C. farm, and will be spared if none of the original herd tests positive for the disease.
The Archers and their supporters have countered that there is no chance the herd could be infected because it's never been fed the animal -byproduct feed that spreads the disease, and because there's never been a reported case in water buffalo.
Perhaps, but to say that feed containing protein from ruminants is the only vehicle for mad cow disease goes directly against what others in Western Canada are now discovering with chronic wasting disease -- call it mad elk disease.
In short, the infectious agent for this whole family of diseases is poorly understood. Extremely poorly understood. And given that level of uncertainty, the CFIA approach is valid.
Driving cars, as an analogy -- one that fails to underscore the frustration felt by the Archers -- is a privilege, one that can be limited, restricted, or taken away if not pursued within the boundaries of speed limits, traffic signals, and stop signs.
The importation of water buffalo, just like the importation of breeding stock from one country to another, is a privilege of international trade, and the rules, which may seem arcane, are based on decades of protracted negotiation.
CFIA has admitted that the risk of BSE in the Archers' herd is low, but officials are correct to assert that there is in fact a risk, and they are even more justified to assert the seriousness of that risk. For those who have read any news during the last seven years from the UK, they should agree with CFIA's sober appraisal of the risk of BSE. Or ask the rest of the European Union. Or the Japanese.
Mad cow disease has surfaced in all of these countries, all with terrible economic and social effects.
To be sure, a terribly unfortunate event in animal disease history has occurred. This event will culminate in the slaughter of 14 extremely valuable and, for Anthea and Darrel, personally cherished, water buffalo. But just like driving, cross-border trading in livestock involves risks, and is therefore rightfully treated as a privilege subject to the rule of law.
CFIA has acted on the basis of precaution, but for something as serious as BSE, such precaution is justified.
The same folks who cite the so-called precautionary principle as a basis to stall all things genetically-engineered, enhanced with borrowed-from nature chemistry, and unnatural -- even in the face of mounds of supporting data -- seem to be absent on this one, where the regulatory agency is responsibly using a precautionary approach (it can't be a principle if it's only used when it suits one's argument) in the face of massive uncertainty.

Justin Kastner is a doctoral student studying the food safety aspects of international trade, and Douglas Powell is an assistant professor and scientific director of the Food Safety Network at the University of Guelph.

Powell: 519-821-1799