The latest Canadian BSE case coming out of Alberta was considered by industry pundits to be unwelcome but not unexpected. The CFIA has predicted that the new Canadian case will not affect trade with either Japan or the United States. Maybe so, but consumers should at least begin to speculate about whether their welfare is even considered in the equation, argues Sylvain Charlebois.

Officials from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) are right in stating that Canadian beef is safe. BSE is not, strictly speaking, a food safety issue. Risks are markedly low for both animals and humans in terms of contracting mad cow or the human variant of the disease. However, there are perceived food safety risks associated with the disease, and BSE is arguably raising domestic and international marketing and food safety concerns. Still, in the face of this, it remains that the CFIA is not independent in its approach, and they, and the Canadian government, have yet to address BSE in terms of a food safety concern as opposed to merely a trade concern. Yet, the core of the trade issue is perceived food safety, making food safety the true issue in spite of all the science that tells us our beef is safe.

What has been gained through the crisis is that the Canadian government learned how to cope with political uncertainty and drive the political agenda with scientific-based facts. What seems to be lost on our government, and our beef industry, is that in the summer of 2003, both the CFIA and the Canadian federal government were politically smitten with transparency and the will to return to the status quo as quickly as possible. During the BSE crisis, with staff from Agribusiness Canada, CFIA’s representatives lobbied to convince the American government to reopen borders to Canadian cattle and beef. The CFIA has proven through the BSE ordeal that it does not have the legitimacy and power to deal with marketing issues, especially when they encompass both trade and food safety concerns.

When Britain was hit by its BSE crisis, for example, it had to comply with strict European Union rules on food safety and was asked to provide more accurate and reliable information to allow better trade flow between European nations. The BSE crisis itself and these trading pressures eventually led the British, in 2000, to create the Food Standard Agency (FSA), which is an independent food safety watchdog set up by an Act of the British Parliament to protect public health and consumer interests in relation to food.

Professor Sylvain Charlebois
The CFIA’s mandate somewhat differs from the one followed by the FSA. Although the CFIA has historically focused its expertise on public health related issues, it also has the mandate to somewhat protect the industry’s interests. The FSA is led by a board that has been appointed to explicitly act in the public interest and not to represent particular sectors. Canada, or the United States for that matter, has never been exposed to such inter-governmental market dynamics pertaining to food safety, and the necessity to divorce public and industry concerns on food safety policies was nonexistent until now. As a result, an equivalent to the FSA in Canada or the United States still does not exist despite the model that was presented by the British experience long before native North American cases showed up. The European approach to trade and marketing through stronger food safety guarantees has resulted in a climate more conducive to meeting both safety and trade/marketing goals in one fell swoop.

The Canadian architecture for food safety policy-making, however, is legislatively inept. The British basis, though, can apply to any given nation that trades agricultural commodities internationally. Partners need to present a certain level of willingness to comply with continental food safety standards, even though legislative structures between nation-partners are fundamentally different. Clarification of the role of the CFIA would, at the least, allow the beef industry to better focus on marketing its products by giving consumers and trade partners confidence in the product and its management in terms of safety.

For years, the industry has seen the domestic demand of beef in Canada steadily decline and its members have done very little to provide consumers with new legitimate reasons to buy more beef. The “you need to buy beef to support our industry” motto will no longer work, as the immediate crisis has past. The industry needs to add value to its product and sell mostly on benefits sought. The new approach should lead to the emergence of national branding strategies, thus focusing on food quality and counter-ready convenience. The tactical efforts will have to take on a universal, strategic and inclusive agenda that combines all futurist paradigms of the industry into one. The “productionist” paradigm that currently overrules all other approaches will eventually become obsolete. This type of strategy can only be accomplished with the backing of a more independent CFIA that is seen to be focused on consumer safety rather than trade and marketing.

With a new Conservative government in Ottawa, which historically has been a greater trade proponent, trade disputes could perhaps be less of a problem. However, we have all learned that the industry should not count on that. Meanwhile, consumers should not and are unlikely to remain complacent about the BSE issue as more and more cases are discovered. The government, the CFIA and the industry need to work hard, employing more of the same informational and educational tactics, to ensure that Canadians, and our trading partners, make the link between discovery of more cases and increased safety. It is this link that has resurrected the European, and particularly the British, beef industries and international trade in beef and beef-products.

Sylvain Charlebois is assistant professor in marketing of the Faculty of Business Administration at the University of Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada.