A cattle vaccine with human health benefit – who should pay?

The following article was first published in Ontario Beef Farmer magazine, July 2008:

It sickens thousands of people every year, killing some and leaving others with permanent health damage. But it doesn’t affect the animals that harbour and shed the bacteria, making the disease invisible to farmers.

Now, a new, made-in-Canada cattle vaccine to reduce human risk of exposure to E.coli O157:H7 is coming onto the market in North America. But who should pay for this innovative new treatment?

The answer to that question is simple, says an Alberta veterinarian who specializes in beef cattle: the government.

“Animals don’t show any signs of E.coli O157:H7, so you can’t see it,” says Dr. Roy Lewis of Westlock, north of Edmonton. “The bottom line is it affects humans but it’s an invisible disease to beef farmers.”

E.coli-related illness costs the Canadian economy about $30 million every year, estimates a 2007 study by the Guelph-based George Morris Centre. But it’s not just about protection of public health. It’s also a matter of safe guarding confidence in Canada’s food supply, both at home and abroad. Large sectors of Canadian agriculture are dependent on export markets and on Canada’s international reputation for quality food.

Additionally, E.coli O157:H7 contamination is not just limited to meat; vegetable crops can also be affected with devastating consequences for both consumers and growers, as was proven by high profile outbreaks in the United States last year.

Given these larger societal benefits, as well as the impact on other sectors within agriculture, Lewis doesn’t think that cattle farmers alone should bear the cost of the vaccine.

“As a beef farmer, it is of no consequence if I have E.coli O157:H7 on my farm so it is hard to make the argument that I alone should pay for something that will benefit society as a whole,” he says, adding that farmers in many parts of the country are already bearing the costs for environmental improvements with societal benefits, like nutrient management and source water protection.

And there is the current economic climate of the beef industry to consider. Escalating feed and fuel costs, coupled with low prices and the rising Canadian dollar, are already financially burdensome for farmers, a concern that is echoed by Ontario Cattlemen’s Association (OCA).

“This would be a big expense to producers in both time and money,” says Paul Stiles, the organization’s Assistant Manager. OCA delegates debated the issue at their 2007 annual general meeting and passed a resolution calling for government funding of the vaccine should its use become mandatory.

Direct cost impact on producers is also top of mind with the vaccine’s manufacturer, Bioniche Life Sciences.

“We fully appreciate the economic challenges that face the cattle industry and the last thing we want is to impose any more financial burden on farmers,” says Rick Culbert, Bioniche’s President of Food Safety. “We are working hard to find a way to make the cost not be a burden on producers.”

So what about support from other value chain partners like processors? According to Lewis, plants are supportive of the vaccine coming in, but he warns farmers not to expect them to pay more for vaccinated cattle. Processors have invested millions into systems to reduce E.coli contamination during processing, so it’s unlikely they will spend additional money to compensate farmers for vaccinated animals. The vaccine, although highly effective at reducing the number of E.coli, will be unable to entirely eliminate the bacteria from cattle, so plants still have to maintain their controls, he says.

For Lewis, government support is an essential part of an implementation strategy for the vaccine. The annual cost to vaccinate Canada’s entire cattle herd is pegged at $32.5 million. Lewis’ recommendation to the government is to provide the funding from the over $100 billion Canada spends annually on health care – and not from dollars allocated to agriculture.

“Health takes up almost 50% of our budget now,” he says. “Just take a tiny sliver of that health budget and slide it over into agriculture as this vaccine is going to prevent people getting sick and reduce hospital stays and deaths.”

Bioniche’s Culbert agrees. “This is an innovative way to address an emerging bacterial disease and reduce the risk of a public health issue that has increased,” he says. “It would be win-win for everybody if government can support it.”

Government officials have been approached with a funding proposal, but no decision has been made so far. The vaccine is currently available in Canada only under special license and is undergoing final regulatory approvals.

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