By Will Verboven, Contributing Editor

The focus of this CALF Issue is international trade regulation and cattle health; anything to do with the word regulation and its implications on agriculture always causes me to rise to the challenge.

Regulations have provided much fodder for columns over the years, and the most exasperating are those that use dubious disease health claims to thwart international trade in agriculture. Most western countries have used disease threats as a mechanism to regulate imports for political, economic or trade reasons. That won’t change; it’s even embedded in free-trade agreements. There are also historic trade restrictions on diseases, the rationale for which was lost in the mists of time. Those regulations take decades to change because entrenched bureaucrats have a visceral reaction to terminating regulations because it implies that governments may have made a mistake – God forbid.

I cite the infamous bluetongue regulation that Canada enforced on American feeder cattle imports. The rationale was that U.S. cattle might carry bluetongue disease, which could be transmitted to Canadian sheep. Such cattle imports had to go through costly tests. But there were some curious circumstances surrounding the spread of bluetongue; it required a specific mosquito species to transmit the disease – one that was basically non-existent in Canada. It had to be blown north by a wind from the United States, and when it did, they soon froze to death.

It got more absurd; no bluetongue in sheep had ever occurred in Canada. The regulation was finally terminated after much lobbying by the Canadian cattle industry, which allowed for the free movement of American feeder cattle to Canada. Incidentally, those imports are becoming critical to the Alberta feedlot industry. The Canadian herd has declined by 3 million since 2004, and unfettered access to U.S. feeder cattle helps our feedlot operators and provides more price competition for such cattle in the northern states.

Readers might recall that infamous incidence of regulatory control that occurred during the BSE outbreak in Canada in 2003. Much of the world placed restrictions on Canadian beef imports, even those that never bought beef from Canada. In retrospect, one can understand the overreaction, as irrational fearmongering ruled the day. Fortunately, wiser heads prevailed in the United States, and American BSE import regulations were moderated. I suspect American officials expected BSE would occur in the U.S. herd (it did) and didn’t want to see the same overreaction to U.S. beef exports.

But bureaucrat habits are hard to change; Canadian government officials fought the owners of a tiny herd of imported American water buffalo all the way to one of the highest courts in the country. They wanted to enforce a BSE regulation to terminate suspect animals even though BSE has never occurred in water buffalo. It took a change in the federal government to call off those bureaucratic wolves. The herd still exists and produces milk for a unique type of mozzarella cheese.

The most notorious of international regulations on beef isn’t directly connected to disease but to imagined impacts on human health. That is the European Union (EU) ban on North American beef that is grown with hormone supplements. The EU lost every World Trade Organization (WTO) trade challenge to those import regulations on the grounds that they were not based on scientific evidence and were nothing more than politically inspired trade restrictions. Yet both Canada and the United States have chosen to live with the EU ban on hormone-treated beef.

Disease regulations go beyond just meat; China and India regularly ban imports of Canadian canola, lentils and other cereals. They justify those bans by using regulations to prevent the perceived importation of crop diseases. In the case of India, those bans are magically lifted whenever domestic prices rise too high or shortages develop. China, as the world has discovered, uses disease and parasite regulation restrictions whenever a country dares to challenge Chinese foreign or domestic policy. At least the United States has the power of a giant world trading entity to confront Chinese trade bullying tactics. Canada is only a moderate trade player highly dependent on the goodwill of importing countries.

The point of these examples is that many international regulations that involve disease transmission and health have been nefariously manipulated to address trade and marketing issues that favor the importer and their domestic industry. An international agency actually exists that is involved with global regulations and disease. It’s the World Organization for Animal Health, a 92-year-old WTO-connected organization that has 75 member countries. Its mandate is international animal health, and that includes science-based disease regulations that impact trade.

One might hope such an agency could help discourage the use of disease regulations being abused in trade issues. But alas, as with so many old international agencies, they are hindered with obscure goals and constrained mandates in order not to offend its members.

That byzantine approach has neutered its ability to deal with the manipulation of international animal health regulations. It would seem that when it comes to international disease regulations, all the livestock industry can hope for is the occasional outbreak of common sense.