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Getting Cattle Producers’ Perspectives on BSE Testing

By Dr. Wendy Wilkins, Disease Surveillance Veterinarian, Animal Health Unit, Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture

Producer participation in BSE surveillance
has steadily declined in Saskatchewan.
It will take a unified effort from government
and industry to turn this trend around.

Surveillance is one of many actions Canada has implemented to manage Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE). In addition to helping protect human and animal health, the program is essential to maintaining and expanding access to international markets for beef and cattle exports. Unfortunately, producer participation in BSE surveillance has steadily declined. Saskatchewan only fulfilled 21 per cent of its testing goal in 2015, and, so far, numbers for 2016 are even lower.

To better understand why participation is declining and to help develop strategies for improving BSE surveillance, in the fall of 2015 the Ministry of Agriculture surveyed cattle producers on their perspectives on BSE testing. Some of the highlights include:

  • There were 154 responses to the survey;
  • The majority (95 per cent) were aware of the BSE surveillance program, and 66 per cent agreed surveillance was important for the cattle industry;
  • The top two reasons for the drop in BSE testing were insufficient compensation for producer participation and concern over the consequences of a positive test; and
  • Improved producer compensation and increased education and awareness were the top two suggestions for increasing submission numbers.

Producers have indicated for years that the $75 received from Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) for each eligible sample submitted is insufficient compensation. And while the response to a positive case has changed since program started, many producers cannot forget the impact and devastation of whole-herd depopulations and the negative influence it had on international trade.

Improved and increased education and awareness about BSE and its surveillance and control is undoubtedly needed. For example, producers need to know that the $75 is not “compensation” for their time and trouble; rather, it is provided to assist with the costs of hanging on to the carcass until the test results come back. The time and effort on the producer’s part is their contribution to a successful surveillance program that benefits the entire industry.

The survey results also highlighted a concern around what happens to a producer’s cattle if a positive test is found. It was suggested that many producers believe their entire herd will be culled; however, this may not be the case. A herd will only be culled if the impact to the entire industry would be greater than the impact to a single producer.

The question is, how do we get these messages out there? What will resonate with producers? The Ministry of Agriculture has been working with industry groups for several years now, stressing the importance of BSE surveillance, yet test numbers continue to fall. Although the producer survey has generated valuable information about producers’ attitudes and perceptions, as well as some useful hints about ways to approach the issue, it is going to take a concerted and unified effort from both government and industry to turn this trend around. 

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