It’s still been a very short time since one cow out of the 5.2 million produced annually in Alberta Canada, was identified as having bovine spongiform encephalopathy. Since then, the list of actions and reactions has been monumental.

Last week, I talked about the initial reaction from the U.S. markets, media and food companies. But in Canada, it’s safe to say, things are more intense. 

At last count, 17 herds and 1,900 animals have been quarantined. The infected cow’s most immediate herd has been cleared of additional BSE concerns. Meanwhile, investigators continue to work to trace the BSE-positive cow’s lifetime movement, as well as that of her offspring and the feed that she consumed. Take a moment to digest the thought of that daunting task.

This one cow could dramatically change the meat industry from production to consumer not just in Canada but in the United States as well.

While criticism remains concerning the four-month BSE-testing delay on the infected cow, Canada’s identification system is receiving some praise. Implemented July 1, 2001, the system requires animals to be identified with an ear tag before leaving the farm of origin, and then again when is to be slaughtered, exported or rendered. U.S. officials are among those who are reviewing the program. It’s logical to expect the long- and often-delayed national animal identification efforts in the United States to receive renewed interest.

I’ve previously discussed the potential impact on the country-of-origin-labeling law. As predicted, it appears that COOL supporters have gained strength from this BSE episode.

While the mystery of how that cow contracted BSE remains, what is clear is the long-reaching and tremendous impact that this so-far, isolated case has caused. That’s another point worth taking time to digest. Now imagine the impact it or any number of other diseases could have on the U.S. meat industries. So far, U.S. consumers have reacted with a yawn at Canada’s woes, even though this could be considered a North American issue. Also, consider the fact that Canadian beef cattle and products are readily shipped to the United States (except for the current ban). U.S. consumers’ reaction is good news, but it may have more to do with it still being a single-cow issue than anything. 

The value of slaughter-weight cattle in Canada dropped as much as 30 percent. Calf values are down 10 percent to 15 percent. Auctions are nearly silent, and packers have had to cut lines and layoff workers.

A tremendous list of countries has halted cattle, beef and in some cases other meat exports from Canada. Officials there are hoping the negative BSE test results (if they keep coming) will quickly right that ship.

Real estate values have been damaged, according to some reports, and the Canadain meat industry continues to hold it’s collective breath, hoping that one cow doesn’t multiply into several.

This is an episode worth watching and one from which the United States can learn many lessons.