Alberta's beef industry: 10 years after mad cow crisis

Alberta's beef industry is still in decline, with Canadians eating less of the meat and fewer producers raising cattle 10 years after BSE, or mad cow disease, savaged the industry.

Canadians eating less beef and raising fewer cattle at BSE anniversary

A decade after Alberta's mad cow crisis, there's been a sharp decline in the number of cattle producers in Alberta, due in part to an aging population, drought, rising feed and labour costs, the rising value of the dollar and BSE. (CBC)

Alberta's beef industry is still in decline, with Canadians eating less of the meat and fewer producers raising cattle 10 years after BSE, or mad cow disease, savaged the industry.

Like many Albertans these workers eating lunch in downtown Edmonton are eating less beef. (CBC)

"The financial impact at the time was devastating, both the financial challenge and emotional strain for a lot of producers," said Rich Smith with the Alberta Beef Producers.

On May 15, 2003, a lone cow was discovered on a remote northern Alberta farm with Bovine Spongiform Encephalitis or BSE.

The international reaction was swift as borders slammed shut. To this day, some are still not fully open, such as Mexico and Japan.

Alberta's beef cattle producers over the past decade.

  • In 1996 Alberta had 32,000 producers
  • In 2005 the number dropped to 25, 600
  • In 2011 only 18,600 producers remained.

      — Statistics Canada

Now a decade later there's been a sharp decline in the number of cattle producers in Alberta, due in part to an aging population, drought, rising feed and labour costs, the rising value of the dollar and BSE.

Ted Haney, with the Canadian Beef Exporting Federation, was in the thick of the crisis at the time and describes the fallout as far worse than anyone expected.

"BSE to some degree robbed our industry of that real optimism and in its place has been a shrinking industry under financial difficulty -- not confident internationally and become defensive in its domestic life," he said.

Edmonton Stockyards a BSE casualty

The number of animals slaughtered down by illion from a decade ago, something  Ken Daynard knows first hand.

He worked at the the Edmonton Stockyards, one of the city's original businesses, shut down a couple of years after the BSE crisis hit and now an empty field.

Beef Exports

  • 2002 = 521,000 tonnes valued at $2.22 billion
  • 2012 = 271,000 tonnes valued at $1.2 billion

 — Statistics Canada

"When you're in the business as long as we were you have a huge customer base and to see that customer base fade away it was difficult," he said.

"Ten years after the BSE hit and there's nothing," he said looking where the stockyards once stood. "Looks like an old gravel yard to me."

Before the BSE crisis, the province exported $2.2 billion in beef products every year. After the disease, that number fell. 

"In 2012 we exported about $1.2 billion of beef products around the world so a significant drop from 2002," said Peter Kuperis, an economist with Alberta Agriculture.

"We dropped to virtually nothing and then we gradually recovered access to markets around the world."

But BSE also left a lasting impression on consumers. 

Beef-loving Alberta eating less

Even in  Alberta, the amount of beef consumed declined by more than 10 per cent over the last decade.

Beef consumption in Alberta over the past decade

  • In 2002 beef consumption in Alberta was at 30.58 kilogram per person
  • In 2003 it grew to 32.4 
  • In 2011 consumption had fallen to to 27.5 kilogram per person.

Ellen Goddard, who teaches agricultural marketing at the University of Alberta, said for some it's lifestyle choice, but for others it's about the risk in eating beef. 

"BSE probably changed peoples risk perceptions considerably," Goddard said.

That focused consumers' attention to how cattle are raised and made the industry more conscious of keeping consumers onside," she said.

"They need to keep public opinion positive about the industry," she said.

That has led the industry to make changes including more stringent record keeping, making it easier to trace beef from the farm to the fork, country of origin labeling and more testing for older animals.

With files from CBC's Adrienne Lamb