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bioniche presentation at pre-budget committee in Ottawa
Sep 23, 2009 11:45PM
Mr. Rick Culbert (President, Food Safety Division, Bioniche Life Sciences Inc.):
Mr. Chair, members of the committee, on behalf of Bioniche Life Sciences, thank you for this opportunity.
Bioniche is an innovative bio-pharmaceutical company based in Belleville, Ontario. Our mandate is to act on innovation and to improve quality of life. We are publicly traded, and we invest heavily in research and development. We currently employ about 200 people around the world in technology-based jobs, the majority of these being in Belleville as well as Montreal.
Today I'm delighted to tell you about an innovative opportunity for Canada to be a world leader in terms of public health and food safety. E. coli O157 is a lethal strain of bacteria that's been in the news ever since the early 1990s, when it was first referred to as “hamburger disease”. This same strain of bacteria continues to be responsible annually for recalls of beef and other food. It was responsible for the huge spinach recall in 2006 as well as the infamous disease outbreak in Walkerton in 2000.
The primary reservoir, or source, of E. coli O157 is cattle, from which it is shed into the environment and can contaminate crops, water, and food. In the estimated 26,000 Canadians infected annually, most experience transient diarrhea. However, in 15% of cases a very severe bloody diarrhea develops. In up to 10% of these, they progress on to kidney failure and/or death.
The good news is that the Government of Canada can take pride in the fact that it supported the research and development that led to the world's first licensed vaccine against E. coli O157. It is named Econiche, and it is designed to reduce the risk of E. coli contamination of food and water. It received full licensing approval from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency last October, in 2008.
Although targeted against a persistent public health risk, Econiche is not given to the public. Instead, it's given to cattle. It's the first of its kind. This deadly strain of E. coli lives within the intestines of cattle without any ill effects to them. Studies have shown that the vaccine significantly reduces colonization in cattle by as much as 98%. A reduction in the amount that is shed helps to reduce the risk of it being present in beef or water, or spread to children who pet cattle at fairs, or via produce, as was the case with last year's outbreak in North Bay, Ontario, that was linked to onions grown here in Canada.
The challenge with adoption is that cattlemen receive no immediate or direct benefit to offset the added cost. As this bacterium does not make cattle sick, the vaccine is not for the health of cattle, like other vaccines. It's for the health of people.
If governments provide the initial funding to encourage adoption, we believe the long-term, far-reaching benefits will become apparent. An independent economic report conservatively estimated that investment of vaccinating Canada's national cattle herd would result in annual savings and benefits of at least 2:1 on investment. The cost to vaccinate the national herd is about $32 million.
Vaccines have been used for decades to address serious public health issues. The concept of vaccinating cattle to reduce public health risk is a perfect fit for the one-world, one-health concept. The challenge with this concept, however, is that it may require the cost to be incurred by one, yet the benefits realized by another.
A poll of urban Canadians revealed that three-quarters of those interviewed were in support of vaccinating cattle to reduce the health risks in our food and water supply. Cattlemen across Canada were also independently surveyed. The data showed that 86% were willing to take action to prevent shedding if the vaccine was just provided to them. Understandably, yet unfortunately, the current adoption levels are very low, as there's no offsetting compensation.
In working toward a national program, we recommend that there be an interdepartmental approach to demonstration projects. The benefits of such projects extend to the departments of health, agriculture and agrifood, as well as international trade. Demonstration projects would encourage primary producers to incorporate technologies--such as Econiche vaccine--that add value to other members of the supply chain as well as the end consumer.
In closing, Bioniche is asking the committee to consider two recommendations. The first is to re-endorse the recommendation that appeared in the final report of this committee last year, which stated that the “federal government develop and implement a program designed to ensure the removal of E. coli from the Canadian food chain”. The second is to ensure that until such time as a national program or appropriate alternative is in place, the Government of Canada provide adequate funding for demonstration projects that encourage adoption. We think $10 million over three years, through programs such as AgriFlexibility, would accomplish this.
Canada is unique. It's the only country with access to a regulated on-farm intervention against E. coli O157. The development of this vaccine is the world's first. Widespread adoption will bolster consumer confidence in Canadian agriculture, reduce the public health risk, and position Canada as a global leader in food safety.