Risk BSE or Lose the Farm? Canadian Court Decides

VANCOUVER, British Columbia, Canada, December 7, 2000 (ENS) - A Vancouver Island farming family finally had their day in court yesterday to try to save their herd of water buffalo, their farm and ultimately, their life savings.

Food inspectors ordered Darrel and Anthea Archer to destroy their 28 water buffalo because they fear the herd has bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), otherwise known as mad cow disease.

Archer

Anthea Archer with one of her prized water buffalo. (Photo courtesy http://www.savethewaterbuffalo.com/)
BSE is a progressive, fatal disease of the nervous system of cattle. When it occurs in humans it is known as Creutzfelt-Jakob disease and is always fatal.

With an import permit granted by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, the Archers imported 19 Bulgarian-born water buffalo to Canada via Denmark in January. A month later, a dairy cow was diagnosed with BSE in Denmark - sufficient grounds to trigger the Canadian government's zero tolerance policy on BSE.

Anthea Archer told ENS in September of her fears. "We run a bed and breakfast but we wanted to be self sufficient and planned to start producing milk and mozzarella cheese from the buffalo," she said.

"We mortgaged the farm to pay for them and have invested about C$200,000 [US$130,873] so far. This is our life and it's being destroyed for no good reason."

The couple stand to lose century old Fairburn Farm. The farm in Duncan, north of B.C. provincial capital Victoria, has been in Darrel Archer's family since 1955.

Despite clearing risk assessments in Denmark and being given a clean bill of health by Canadian government veterinarians, the water buffalo were imported in contravention of Canada's Health of Animals Act, according to CFIA.

The agency has delayed two deadlines for the herd's destruction or removal from Canada, the second to allow a judicial review, which began in the federal court in Vancouver, Wednesday.

farm

Fairburn Farm dates back to the mid-1880s and has been in Darrel Archer's family since 1955. The Archers stand to lose their farm unless CFIA changes its mind. (Photo courtesy Fairburn Farm)
The Archers' lawyer Simon Fothergill told Judge Denis Pelletier that his clients face financial ruin, because of international trade interests rather than human health concerns.

"I certainly believe they are being dragged into a trade dispute," Fothergill told reporters outside the courtroom. The Archers believe that the government is worried the European Union could classify Canada as a country with a higher risk of mad cow disease, which would threaten beef exports.

"This is a political issue and has nothing to do with the health of animals or people," say the Archers on a campaign web site.

"We have all necessary letters and details of what our water buffalo ate, and where they were located both in Denmark and in Bulgaria. The disease in question, BSE, Mad Cow disease, is not contagious, does not affect every animal and is contracted through contaminated feed."

They point out that BSE has never been diagnosed in water buffalo.

"The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is adamant that this Notice to Remove or Destroy will not be overturned because the case would set a historical precedent for others who have been mistreated and financially ruined by the actions of this agency without compensation," say the Archers.

"It is very important the our food safety is protected, however, this should be done on scientific and factual data not on a 'we shall take no prisoners' attitude. There must be accountability for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency."

The CFIA refuses to comment on the case.

buffalo

There has never been a documented case of water buffalo contracting BSE, according to the Institute of Zoology in Monterotundo, Italy, the Office International des Epizooties, Paris, and the Food and Animal Organization in Rome, Italy. (Photo by Christine Budke)
Yesterday, Fothergill pointed out that the CFIA is not suggesting that the water buffalo came into contact with the diseased cow in Denmark.

"The risk that we are discussing here is theoretical. It is speculative. It is not supported by any evidence," Fothergill said. "Other reasonable countries have chosen to do nothing with respect to water buffalo imported to those countries."

Representing the federal government, Rick Woyiwada said the court should defer to the experts who protect Canadian livestock and the food supply of Canadians.

"It is impossible at this point to diagnose BSE before the symptoms actually appear," Woyiwada said. "The disease can reside in the animal for many years and can never be known."

The Archers attended the court hearing with several supporters.

"It is our livelihood we are losing here," Darrel Archer told reporters. "It is everything we have worked for all our lives, so it is important that we are here."

The Archers' herd is currently in quarantine, awaiting their fate.

For more on their case, visit http://www.savethewaterbuffalo.com/