The people in charge of getting the Canadian beef industry out of its mad cow mess certainly had me fooled. Alberta premier Ralph Klein and Canadian agriculture minister Lyle Vanclief are so good at acting like politicians that when they denounced the unscientific prejudice behind 15 countries' ban on Canadian beef imports since the discovery of the first mad cow here, I just dismissed them as stupid beyond belief. You don't win back customers by yelling at other governments when you screw up big time - you do it by working to regain public trust. Strong like bull, smart like streetcar, I said to myself, I'm ashamed to say, because I was still callously unaware that they were helpless victims of a conspiracy.
Only after decoding their speeches did I realize how serious the situation is: our food system is being managed by a cult. Members wear suits and ties and chant about "sound science' and "market forces,' which leads many to mistake them for government-paid animal health regulators and agricultural economists.
But only a secret cabal would think food companies don't have to cater to the consumer the way other businesses who mess up do. Think of Tylenol's major PR effort after the murderous tampering with its containers. Instead of owning up to the problem and dramatically fixing it, the food cult has convinced Canadian government and beef industry leaders to deny that anything seriously wrong happened.
By refusing to take responsibility, they forfeit the possibility of taking the initiative in restoring public confidence and ensuring new and superior standards. This is what McDonald's did in the U.S. when it led the fat food industry in refusing antibiotics in its meat purchases, leadership that garnered the firm international praise.
Government and industry press releases, frequently echoed in the media, like to refer to Canada's "lone" or "sole" case of mad cow disease. It would be more accurate to refer to "the first discovered case," given that government regulators assumed the disease didn't exist in Canadian cattle herds and therefore didn't search for it. The one discovery may suggest as much about the rarity of government inspections as of the disease.
Cult members also do not like to quote the scary warning hidden in the findings of the International Committee on Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (ICBSE), the team of experts who reported in June on Canada's management of the mad cow case. While praising the feds for their investigation of the problem, the report highlights "the possibility that other infected cattle in the late stages of incubation are present in Canadian herds."
Likewise, standard government, industry and media releases refer to the success of the system in keeping the diseased animal out of the human food chain. Seldom do they mention the fact that the diseased animal's rendered remains entered the food chain of feed mills supplying pigs and chickens, whose rendered remains could in turn be sold to feed mills supplying cattle.
Way back in 1996, the World Health Organization recommended that ruminant animals be kept out of other ruminant animals' food chain. But the industry certainly didn't want to point out the feds' lackadaisical follow-up, which may have led to the comment by ICBSE leader Ulrich Kihm that Canada's system is "fairly good," but "you can of course improve it and you have to improve it - there's no question."
Vanclief responded by saying that "Canada has one of the world's best food safety systems, and we intend to make our system even safer," confirming that lack of attention given to listening skills in cult training programs.
Premier Klein will earn a place in the history books on how not to win back customers. Upon hearing that the Americans can't lift their ban on Canadian beef for fear of losing all beef sales to Japan, he expressed disappointment that Japan, "a race of people who are highly intelligent," is "consumed by unwarranted fear."
Playing off him in a rematch of Dumb And Dumberer, Vanclief scolded the Japanese in an anti-sales pitch, threatening that "if they insist on standards higher than international animal health regulations, they better be very, very careful, because there's trade in other things than beef."
This is typical cult insensitivity to customer needs or perceptions. Not to mention lack of awareness about Japan, which experienced a traumatic outbreak of mad cow disease in 2001, causing the death of one person. Japan raised its standards following that crisis and now demands that imports meet the same requirements. Instead of responding to world-wide consumer preferences, the feds, who know zilch about customer service, issue threats to governments, a reflection of the fact that producers and consumers of food have long been at odds in this country.
Nor have the feds issued any statements on sound governance, which is all the rage in industry, where companies are trying to get beyond Enron and related scandals by promoting transparency in the conduct of business.
In the European Economic Community, dozens of new laws have been enacted to require labelling and other measures that give consumers a window on the industries providing their food. "Transparency, information and open dialogue must guide our actions," says European commissioner for health and consumer protection David Byrne. Such chatter is not tolerated in North America, where the cult still rules the roost.
It took an access to information search by health researcher Brad Duplisea to get minutes released of 1996 and 97 meetings where Health Canada scientists worried about feeding rendered animals to livestock and expressed concern about "changing herbivores into carnivores."
Needless to say, basic info about chemicals, hormones and genetically engineered feeds used when raising livestock is routinely withheld from consumers. This, presumably, is in keeping with sound science, which our cultish government seems to believe cannot be appreciated by the unschooled masses.