It's the kind of story most of us wouldn't even spot, let alone skim. Business page, three sections back: Canada's biggest bacon producer launches hog tracing system in wake of mad cow. Snore. But there's something shifty about this otherwise sleepy tale of Canadian technological advancement. Pigs aren't supposed to get mad cow. At least that's been the official line from the feds and the meat industry. Why, then, launch a pork traceability system akin to that used to hunt down crazed cows? Or why, for that matter, is the Ontario hog industry taking it upon itself to quietly ban cow bits from hog diets? Well, Maple Leaf Foods, Canada's largest pork processor, says it's all to please the fickle yet profitable Japanese market - the second-largest export market for Canada's pig farmers after the U.S. "Our Japanese customers have for some time been looking to their suppliers to provide a higher guarantee of traceability of products they import. Full traceability is the gold standard for containing risk in the event of food safety issues," says Lynda Kuhn, Maple Leaf's VP of public and investor relations.
Although by "food safety issues" Kuhn insists she means outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease, a highly contagious lesion- and fever-inducing virus that has yet to affect humans, she admits, "Certainly, (mad cow) has heightened concern in all international markets about all food safety. It obviously is a catalyst."
But by and large, pig processors and officials are clear - they don't buy the link between pigs and mad cow. "The science has shown that pigs do not contract TSE (transmissible spongiform encephalitis) and they don't transmit it either," says Canadian Food Inspection Agency spokesperson Sue Robertson. Hence, CFIA's comfort level with feeding cow bits, even potentially infected cow bits, to pigs, and then pigs right back to cows.
Admittedly, outside of a lab, no pig has ever been found to have TSE. But even notoriously cautious scientists like David Westaway, of U of T's Centre for Research in Neurodegenerative Diseases, say pigs can be infected and transmit it as silent carriers. "Pigs are quite resistant to getting the disease. You can have a little less of the infectious agent in the animal and the animal won't get sick, but the infectious agent can get passed on to the next host." The next hosts we're worrying about, clarifies Westaway, are not only cattle but humans.
And while the CFIA dismisses the science, it's research that the Japanese have kept a close eye on since the first cases of BSE appeared in their country in 2001. As chief representative of the Washington branch of the Japanese Agriculture and Livestock Industry Corporation Shiro Inukai says the facts are simple. "Scientists tried to put BSE into the brain of pigs, and those pigs became infected with BSE." Inukai adds that while the possibility of infection is quite low, it's a risk the Japanese aren't willing to take. So, like the British, the Japanese decided to err on the side of caution and ban meat and bone meal feed for any animal.
Which brings us back to this side of the ocean, where the Ontario Pork Producers' Marketing Board, which oversees the sale and marketing of swine in this province, has decided on it's own to make all hog feed meat- and bone-meal-free by March 1. That means no pork or cattle bits can get into hog diets.
But don't take that as an admission that Ontario Pork is concerned about a mad cow link. OP director of communications Keith Robbins says the move had nothing to do with food safety and was, again, all about pleasing Japanese consumers. (Probably a wise move, considering that Japan's imports of Canuck pork fell almost 20 per cent in the first three-quarters of 2003.) Robbins is also quick to add that Japanese officials were kowtowing to unfounded "public perceptions" rather than hard science about mad cow when they banned pork from cattle feed.
Still, when asked if pigs can get BSE, Robbins couches his no in uncertainty. "I'm certainly not an expert," says Robbins. "I don't want to make that comment."
So while even the pork industry indirectly acknowledges that nothing is certain in the ever-evolving world of mad cow data, the CFIA is sending out mixed messages. In reports published last month, the agency's chief vet said that a ban on feeding all slaughterhouse waste (including pork) to cattle had been ruled out, despite earlier warnings from four government scientists that such a ban is the only way to contain further outbreaks of mad cow in Canada.
When reached for comment, CFIA spokesperson Alain Charette freaked at the suggestion that a comprehensive ban had been ruled out and said instead that no decision had been reached. But that's not the impression you'd get from listening to CFIA's feed program coordinator, Sergio Tolusso. "We still firmly believe that our incidence of BSE is fairly low here," says Tolusso. "To take that kind of a dramatic response relative to very low incidence of the disease may not be prudent."
And when asked why the CFIA has not acted to ban meat and bone meal from hog diets while Ontario has (and other provinces consider the move), Tolusso says, "The agency's position hasn't changed as far as the use of meat and bone meal in diets for swine and poultry. It's still acceptable."