Tuesday, May 27, 2003

Mad cow scare a wake-up call
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - Here's three important lessons from the mad cow disaster.
First, it's time to pay more attention to what we eat.
The Alberta rancher who sent the infected cow off to market says he decided to sell her when she got so sick she couldn't stand up anymore.
Inspectors at the abattoir thought the cow - once it was dragged off a truck - looked too sickly to be carved up into steaks. (In that sense the system worked.) And they were worried enough that they sent the head for testing at the Alberta agriculture ministry's lab.
But they approved the sale of the cow for animal feed, and it was melted down. The slurry was used to make chicken feed.
It's been illegal since 1997 - when mad cow disease hit England - to use cow in feed for other cattle, though no one has ever been charged. But unlike Britain, which barred the use of cattle in all animal feed, Canada still allows its use in pig and chicken feed.
That looks like stupid now. Three farms in B.C. were quarantined because they had bought chicken feed made from the infected Alberta cow. Investigators were worried that their cows had licked some up, or that farmers had simply decided to use it to supplement their cattle feed. That's considered a way mad cow disease can spread.
It's not good practice, on any level, to let farmers sell cattle that are so sick or injured that they have to be dragged into the slaughterhouse, a chain looped around an ankle. People don't want to eat those cows, and there are risks if they're used in animal feed.
But we do it regularly. In Ontario a 1999 review found that in three months 639 sick cattle were approved for slaughter. Records only showed what happened to 358 of them. Almost 90 per cent were slaughtered for human consumption.
Those aren't cows people want to eat. When they find out that they are dining on sick animals, the damage is lasting.
It's a tiny number, of course. That's all the more reason for ending the practice, since it means the cost to industry is minimal. If slaughterhouses rejected cows that arrived unable to stand because they'd broken a leg in the truck, the industry would find a way to get them there in one piece.
The second lesson is about government spending and regulation. When inspectors sent that cow head off to the provincial lab in Alberta, it was four months before tests were done. Alberta used to have four animal testing labs; the Klein government closed three to save money.
A quick test would have meant the cow was never made into feed. The B.C. farms and the cattle industry here would never have been involved. The government's savings were false, as the ultimate cost in lost revenue and a damaged industry was much greater.
The case also show the economic justification for effective regulation. For markets to work, buyers need to be able to count on a minimum level of quality. And part of government's role is to be provide that assurance, through regulation and inspection and enforcement. You can argue about who should pick up the cost, but government has an essential role in role in helping make markets work.
The third lesson is that consumers shouldn't depend on regulation. If British Columbians said that they weren't prepared to buy beef until retailers could guarantee no downed animals were being chopped into hamburger, that would happen. If they said they weren't prepared to eat cows fed on ground up pigs or chicken manure (also an ingredient in cattle feed), that would happen.
The reality remains that our beef - and other food - is among the safest in the world.
But the reality also is that we need to to do better.
Footnote: Up to five per cent of the cattle killed in B.C. may not be inspected at all. If the beef is to stay in B.C., regions can opt to rely on voluntary compliance instead of inspection. The Liberals plan to require inspection by the end of the year. Good for consumers; bad for some abattoirs and butchers that will be put out of business because they're too small to allow affordable inspection.

You decide if Campbell breaking promise to children and families
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - Critics say Gordon Campbell's plan to cut 23 per cent - about $300 million - from spending on children and families is a betrayal of pre-election promises.
Campbell denies saying the ministry needed more money.
Here's the legislative record. You decide.
On May 1, 1997:
"My question to the Minister for Children and Families is: given existing resources and given the fundamental need to protect the child, what additional resources will it take to honour our obligation to put children first in the province of British Columbia?"
Penny Priddy, the minister, replies that more money isn't the answer.
And Campbell responds.
"I appreciate the minister's response. I'd also, though, like to say that I think we have to do more. It seems to me, as we look at the issues that we've dealt with over the last number of years, that it is critical and crucial for us all to understand that this is often an issue of financial resources. It's often an issue of new ways that we can provide services. . . "
On May 13, 1997:
"Today the child, youth and family advocate in British Columbia issued her second annual report. From the report and the advocate's comments, it's clear that to do the job of protecting children, more resources are going to be required. The children's advocate said today that the job can't be done with what's on the table: '. . .with what is on the table, something will fall off.' Unfortunately, often that something is a child."
My question to the minister is: is she willing to work with all of us to gather together the concerns of people on the outside, of the young people on the outside and of the children's advocate, and to work with members of the Legislature to allocate the resources that are necessary so that next year we can make real progress with regard to protecting children in the province of British Columbia?
As the minister herself has said, she needs resources. The children's advocate has said we need resources."
On July 3, 1997:
"The minister does not seem to understand that what we on this side of the House have committed to and what people across this province have committed to is to provide the resources that are needed to protect the children of British Columbia."
On March 31, 1998:
"On May 1, 1997, last year, I said to the Minister for Children and Families: 'There is clearly a problem. You need more resources.' The voices from social workers, from front-line workers across this province, have been clear: month in and month out they are overworked. They can't do the job that this government claimed they were charging them with.
I can tell you that people on this side of the House were committed to making sure that they had the resources so they could do it. . .
For two years now we have listened to this government mouth the words, but they have not put in the resources that they need to protect children in this province. For two years we have listened to the Premier of this government pretend that he care about the children of British Columbia and yet not fund the Ministry for Children and Families the way it had to be funded to make sure that children were protected.
The problem with this government is that they don't understand that if your priority is protecting children, that's what your priority is."
On May 5, 1998:
"My question is to the Minister for Children and Families: will the minister admit today that much more, in terms of resources, is required to protect children in need and children in care?"
"Our legislative officer -- the child, youth and family advocate -- has said quite clearly: 'We need to challenge the 'too bad we can't afford it' attitude about essential services for children and youth, knowing that if we don't pay now we will pay more dearly later."
In 1999 the ministry spent $1.48 billion. Next year the government plans to cuts spending to $1.26 billion, $220 million less than British Columbia devoted to the most vulnerable six years ago.