- You must forgive Dr. Sorin Musat-Marcu, the president
of a small Edmonton-based biotech firm, if he sounds a bit frustrated about
how Canada has handled its mad cow crisis. Several years ago, Musat-Marcu's
company, HistoBest Inc., came up with a better way to enhance food safety:
an efficient method for testing and banking animal tissue samples. The
doctor's relatively cheap system could even diagnose several serious diseases,
including mad cow--and all within 48 hours.
- For more than two years, Musat-Marcu shopped his innovative
technology around, but nobody in government or industry took much interest.
Then, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease, struck
Canada, and now both industry and government are floundering for solutions.
"The truth should go out," says Musat-Marcu. "I won't back
- What the truth apparently boils down to, from HistoBest's
perspective, is truly maddening: it doesn't always pay to build a better
mousetrap when the mouse in question is actually a mad cow. Based on lengthy
correspondence with government officials, Musat-Marcu is now fairly convinced
that the BSE crisis is a veritable Pandora's box. "If we do some proper
testing, we will find a couple of hundred infected cows and nobody wants
that," he says. "They want to keep the lid on this."
- Musat-Marcu decries what he views as false science in
government and media circles, and believes over-testing is the only way
out of an ugly trade debacle, which has seen Canadian beef banned in the
United States, Japan and several other countries. And every time he hears
a government official say that BSE is just an animal health issue, he cringes.
"Consumers have the right to know," says Musat-Marcu. "More
than 140 Europeans have died, and they will continue dying for years to
come. I'm very frustrated."
- Just about everyone who knows Musat-Marcu agrees that
the man is intensely passionate and incredibly forthright. "He's super
intense and a bit of a genius," says Dr. John Elliott, a researcher
at the University of Alberta's medical school and a regular client of HistoBest.
Even Musat-Marcu admits he is not terribly patient or subtle. "I know
that," he concedes. Scientists contacted by Canadian Business also
agree that Musat-Marcu's technology, which also garnered excellent reviews
from a researcher at the U.S. National Institute of Health, is very good--and
should at the very least be developed as a pilot project. But they also
argue that the federal regulations regarding BSE tests are, well, complex,
if not intensely political, and that the biotech business is messy. Musat-Marcu,
however, won't give up. "Everyone agreed it was good science,"
he says. "But they told me, 'Politically it will never fly. Watch
- So Musat-Marcu's story simply isn't about sour grapes,
biotech gambles and missed opportunities. It's also about BSE science,
the testing quandary and international trade politics. As things now stand,
just two mad cows, a modest number by any standard, have cost the Canadian
beef industry approximately $4 billion in lost business. (Japan's first
three cases in 2001-02 cost about US$2.76 billion.) With our borders closed
and as many as two dozen countries shunning Canadian beef--which had sales
worth $7.6 billion in 2002--the devastation in cattle country has been
immense. Just four months ago, a report prepared for the Calgary-based
Canadian Animal Health Coalition calculated that "the aggregate economic
and financial impacts of this outbreak represent the greatest threat and
shock the Canadian agricultural industry has ever experienced." And
that was before the second Canadian-born mad cow popped up in Washington
state. Or before the U.S. Food and Drug Administration started restricting
feed exports from more than a dozen Canadian companies on the basis that
their "contaminated" products contained little more than feathers
or animal hair.
- Unlike many Canadian-born scientists, the Romanian-born
and European-educated Musat-Marcu had a pretty clear understanding of the
initial impact of BSE on the world beef trade long before he made any pitches
for his technology. After Germany found its first indigenous mad cow in
2000, for example, beef exports in that country were forecasted to fall
to 130,000 tonnes from 212,000. France's mad cow crisis initially resulted
in a 50% drop in beef consumption, in a nation where steak frites was almost
a staple. All in all, beef consumption in Europe was reportedly down by
28% of pre-1996 levels.
- But what Musat-Marcu probably didn't realize was that
the crippling of Europe's beef industry in the past five years has allowed
several BSE-free countries, particularly Canada and the United States,
an opportunity to infiltrate export markets formerly dominated by Europeans.
And that probably helps to explain why world beef consumption actually
increased by 3% in 2000--and why Canada occupied the world's No. 3 beef
exporter spot last year before its mad fall from grace.
- To help Canada keep that competitive edge and brand its
product as the world's best, Musat-Marcu decided to apply HistoBest's unique
technology to food safety in 2001. Partnered with Nick Nation, a veterinary
pathologist, Musat-Marcu initially developed the system to preserve large
amounts of tissue on a slide in what's called a "micro array."
As he readily admits, his technology isn't fancy; he simply took the best
ideas from more than 150 years of histology (the science of tissue sampling)
and came up with a faster and cheaper test. Although HistoBest, one of
many biotech spinoff companies out of the University of Alberta, found
ready customers among biomedical researchers around the world, Musat-Marcu
reckoned that an expansion into food safety was both logical and timely,
given the global threat of animal diseases.
- So he put together a business plan, as well as research
proposals. Musat-Marcu calculated that his system and lab could initially
test up to 375,000 animals per year (in 2002 Canada tested only 3,500 cattle
annually for BSE), plus store all the information in a space measuring
only one cubic metre. Histology, he noted, remained the gold standard for
BSE testing. More importantly, his tissue bank allowed for retrospective
studies. "If we had banked tissues from animals that have been slaughtered
since 1997," explains Nation, "then we could have reviewed them
and might have found the other animals with BSE at the time." In addition,
Musat-Marcu estimated the enhanced testing would cost approximately $5
per shot--not the $20 to $50 the Canadian government is currently spending
on BSE test kits.
- Armed with these happy facts, Musat-Marcu approached
regulatory officials and politicians, including then-agriculture minister
Lyle Vanclief, two years ago. Some Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA)
officials frankly told him that the level of testing HistoBest was proposing
just wouldn't fit with a U.S. policy of minimal testing, designed to protect
North America's BSE-free status; others said his system was too good to
be true. Some slaughterhouses, says Musat-Marcu, pointedly noted that they
didn't want to find diseases they "officially" didn't have. The
Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research, an agency operating at
arm's length from the provincial government that Musat-Marcu had sought
funding from, curiously noted that his technology "has the potential
to identify those animals who are diseased and therefore remove them from
the system (especially the food chain)" but went on to explain the
organization couldn't grant any money because it didn't see any "human
- A great many independent scientists, however, found strong
merit in HistoBest's plan. John Webb, director of genetics and science
at Toronto-based Maple Leaf Foods, believes that Musat-Marcu's technology
is probably well suited to a slow slaughter line processing high-value
meat like beef. But he doesn't think it's suited to pigs, for which Maple
Leaf has instituted its own DNA tracking system from farm to plate. "I
understand his frustration," says Webb. "The country should build
[Musat-Marcu's] technology into its thinking."
- Jake Burlet, president and CEO of Edmonton-based Viewtrak
Technologies Inc., has had an entirely different experience than Musat-Marcu.
Burlet has developed a computer software system that can track cattle from
farm to the grocery store in real time on the Internet. Since December,
sales have been brisk in the United States, and Burlet is now talking with
CFIA officials. "We are trying to create a pull from industry rather
than a push," he says.
- Officials in the Alberta government looked at HistoBest's
proposal, but ruled it out even before the mad cows came along. "Two
years ago they told me they weren't interested and that I had to be patient,"
says Musat-Marcu. "But I'm not very patient." Veterinarian Cornelia
Kreplin, director of food safety for the province, now acknowledges that
she looked over the technology. She explains that Alberta has switched
from a system of "immunohistochemistry," time-consuming microscopic
exams of tissue samples, to rapid BSE automated tests made by Bio-Rad Laboratories
Inc., a California-based multinational that manufactures diagnostic tests.
Musat-Marcu's technology, she says, "just didn't meet our current
- Most of the federal testing now done in Canada involves
one of two European-approved tests operating under "an emergency license"
by the CFIA. That means only labs equipped with specific equipment and
European-trained personnel, or Canadians who have studied under them, can
use the diagnostics. "It's not like an open licence where any veterinarian
can do the test," explains Paul Kitching, director of the Winnipeg-based
National Centre for Foreign Animal Disease. "We are only looking at
tests validated in the European Union." Issues such as what kind of
tests, or how and which animals should be tested, have little to do with
scientists, he adds. "At the end of the day it is the decision of
politicians in Ottawa."
- The scale of Canadian testing is now the subject of much
heated debate. Even Alberta Premier Ralph Klein has gone from the extreme
of recommending a "shoot, shovel and shut up" approach to BSE
last year to fond musings last month about the Japanese solution: the testing
of every slaughtered animal. Although the Canadian government proposes
to beef up testing from a paltry 5,500 animals per year to 30,000 or more
by 2009, at a cost of $92 million, few consider those numbers adequate.
And many wonder just where all the money will be going. Musat-Marcu estimates
that CFIA's plan amounts to $3,000 per test, and just shakes his head.
"I even offered to do 300 samples a day to help out last year because
they didn't have enough manpower," he says. "But nobody called
back. Zero." University of Toronto biologist David Westaway, an expert
in prions, the proteins that are thought to cause BSE, calculates that
the $92 million could actually test nearly a quarter of the animals slaughtered
every year, or upwards of 500,000 head of cattle.
- But many animal experts question the wisdom and cost
of increased testing. The Japanese can afford to test every animal because
they have a small abattoir system and much smaller throughput, notes Gerald
Ollis, Alberta's chief provincial veterinarian. North America's big slaughterhouses,
he says, just don't have the refrigeration space for that kind of testing.
"And there is no science to support it," adds Ollis. "It's
a perception thing."
- Others believe Canada isn't prepared to ramp up its testing
for fear of embarrassing the United States. "The Americans don't want
to go there," notes a former federal veterinarian who requested anonymity.
"If they find it [BSE], they have no way trace it," he says.
(Unlike the United States, Canada has a cattle identification program.)
"So they are trying to convince the rest of the world that it's gone
overboard on BSE. The whole thing has been badly handled. Canada has done
a better job than the U.S., but nobody has done a good job."
- Chris Clark, an assistant professor of large-animal medicine
at the University of Saskatchewan's veterinary college in Saskatoon, is
convinced that Canada will definitely find more cases every year for several
years to come, due to approximately 68 British imports that entered the
food chain in this country in the late 1980s or early '90s. Free trade
in animals and feed almost guarantees that the United States has a big
or bigger problem, he adds. "I think it's unbelievable that they don't
have mad cow."
- To date, the absence of federal leadership--not to mention
decisive action--has many people just as agitated as Musat-Marcu. Consider
William Leiss, a risk-management analyst at the University of Calgary's
Haskayne School of Business. "It all boils down to idiot economics,
where billions of dollars in losses later, Canadians are still told we
can't afford to spend on necessary and cost-effective tests to restore
confidence in our animal health programs," he argues in a provocative
essay posted on the Internet.
- Like Musat-Marcu, Leiss believes that Canada has to take
some pretty dramatic actions. He proposes an independent assessment of
BSE risk, an independent audit of feed mills, and open negotiations with
trading partners to achieve a "mutually determined, enhanced surveillance
and testing regime." Leiss also questions the wisdom of rebuilding
a food industry as vulnerable as Canada's export-driven and export-dependent
- Musat-Marcu says he won't be surprised if those kinds
of ideas meet the same kind of resistance his technology did. Beef producers,
on the other hand, wonder if they'll have anything left to export, let
alone test, if Canada doesn't bite the bullet on mad cow disease.
- © 2004 Rogers Media Inc. - Publishing