THE Canadian BSE experience outlined by a guest speaker at a Meat and Livestock Australia producer forum last week dispelled any doubts Australia needed an efficient trace back system for cattle.
Canadian Cattlemen's Association (CCA) vice-president Dennis Laycraft said that it was only after intense and often bitter debate in 1999-2000 that Canadian beef producers implemented an industry trace back system in 2001.
It was based on a bar coding system but there were plans to update it to an electronic system similar to the proposed National Livestock Identification Scheme in Australia.
Mr Laycraft said that before the announcement of BSE in Canada on May 20 it was thought their crisis management plan would have been used for foot and mouth disease, not BSE.
He said Canada had stopped importing cattle from the European Union in 1989 and introduced a surveillance system that complied with world animal health guidelines.
"Finding the BSE did support the rigour of our system," he said.
He said it was believed the isolated case of BSE, which had so far cost the industry more than $1 billion, originated from a calf born in March 1997 which had eaten starter meat and bone meal before it was banned five months later.
There was also a theory the MBM could have come from an animal imported before 1989.
Mr Laycraft said that if they had their national ID system going in 1997 it would have sped up their BSE investigations.
He said that despite the intense debate leading up to the introduction of their ID system in 2001, it did not take much convincing after the event when producers could not sell their animals.
Mr Laycraft believed they could have cut back by 10 days the time it took to track the BSE, which would have saved $20m a day.
"It would have been nice to have received that first indication of BSE on Friday and on Tuesday, when they announced it to the world, to have said this is the herd of origin and this is where it ended up," he said.
"If only we could have said the herd was quarantined and we were just getting our first negative test results back.
"But instead it took a week to get to that stage and three weeks to complete the process."
³In the next 20 days we ended up testing 2000 head of cattle and depopulating 2700 animals."
The US Department of Agriculture worked with the Canadians to track the origin of the BSE through the ID system and DNA testing.
He said Canada exported 90pc of its beef worth $3.45 billion to the US last year.
The immediate ban on exports to the US and Japan caused a backlog of about 30,000-34,000 head of cattle in Canada each week.
Mr Laycraft said the price of grain-fed cattle dropped from $1.05/lb to 35c/lb.
"Today we are trading at around 92 cents but it should be up around $1.15," he said.
He said cow prices had dropped from 56c to as low as 11c a pound for good quality animals.
"We went through almost two and a half months where you could not sell a feeder (weaner) animal."
Mr Laycraft, who also addressed the Cattle Council of Australia AGM in Perth, said that while there were offers by public relations companies to handle the BSE issue, it was decided to take a more direct and open path.
There were full media briefings each day and an international panel was invited to conduct an internal audit on the "no stone unturned" investigation.
"The panel was particularly impressed in the way the media was included in this," he said.
Mr Laycraft said that after 10 days of the most intense media exposure imaginable a survey indicated an 88pc trust in the Canadian food safety organisation (CFIA), 85pc trust in the CCA and 84pc trust in cattle producers.
In a web survey 86.5pc said they could trust Canadian beef.
"Those are the highest levels we have every seen.
"We also started to see a real anger develop about the bans."
Rallies and barbecues were held across the country in support of local beef with large retailers such as Burger King and McDonalds dropping imported beef and marketing 100pc Canadian beef.
He said there was no noticeable drop in retail beef prices.
Canada, which has a herd of 15 million cattle, has been the only country with increased beef consumption after BSE.
"The key was the openness of the investigation, strong science based assurances from CFIA and Health Canada and the availability of the informed and credible cattle industry spokespeople," he said.
"The other thing that became clear was that our proactive measures in 1989, our firewalls or and safeguards, and our surveillance system and ID system paid off."
Canada, which exported 60pc-70pc of its beef, did not have any kind of traceback system before 2001.