North American Brief
Issue 18 | May 2024

In this issue: Bird flu jumps to U.S. dairy cows, USTR scorns blanket tariffs, U.S. ag trade deficit raises concern, Mexico wins first rapid response case and more.

Response of more concern than bird flu outbreak

Bird flu returns to roost? There have been several stories on this year’s outbreak of a disease-causing strain, H5N1, in the U.S. dairy and egg sectors. A good backgrounder is in the Washington Post. Another essential source of information is the U.S. Centre for Disease Control landing page for updates. The summary of status in the U.S. is:

  • Dairy cattle: Ongoing multi-state outbreak
  • Wild Birds: Widespread
  • Poultry Flocks: Sporadic outbreaks
  • Mammals: Sporadic infections
  • People: 2 cases in U.S.
  • Person-to-person spread: None
  • Current public health risk: Low

The penultimate point on human infection is interesting in that initial reporting on the outbreak suggests that risk of transmission to humans is low. Human infection is difficult and requires close contact with infected birds or a contaminated area, for instance sweeping out an infected chicken coop, but according to the World Health Organization, when it occurs it has a 50 per cent fatality rate. From 2003 to 25 March 2024, 888 human cases of infection of influenza A(H5N1), including 463 deaths, have been reported to WHO from 23 countries.

There has been one confirmed human case in Canada (in 2013) and Canadian information is with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). The virus’ status in Canada appears to be similar to U.S. with minimal concern – at this point – about the danger to humans given that the virus has not mutated (though mutation is always a possibility. The numbers by province:

Est # domestic birds impacted (as of 2024-04-10)
British Columbia 6,004,000
Alberta 1,862,000
Quebec 1,411,000
Ontario 899,000
Saskatchewan 742,000
Manitoba 400,000
Nova Scotia 12,000
Newfoundland and Labrador 400
New Brunswick >100
Total 11,030,500


The greater worry is the lack of response to the outbreak. If concern over the virus is not large, then why devote so much space to the topic? The issue is that calls not to worry about the outbreak all come with the caveat of “don’t worry, unless/until the virus mutates.” However, viruses do mutate, so preparation ahead of a potential mutation would seem like a no-brainer, especially given the lessons of COVID.  But there is very little, if any, evidence that those lessons have been learned and are being applied.

Sometimes a headline, such as this one in the Washington Post, says it all – As bird flu spreads in cows, fractured U.S. response has echoes of early COVID.

While there has not been as much reporting on what remains largely a U.S. outbreak, what reporting exists in Canada points to a different set of problems – limited surveillance. This time a CBC headline says it all -Scientists warn Canada ‘way behind the virus’ as bird flu explodes among U.S. dairy cattle.

So far there have been no reported cases in Mexico but, according to Reuters, authorities there are increasing surveillance.

A North American problem without a North American solution?  Given our deeply integrated food production systems in North America the outbreak is a North American issue. Yet, there seems to be no North American response. There are, of course, agreements and mechanisms to share information within the North American trade bloc, such as the North American Plan for Animal and Pandemic Influenza. But we have seen no reporting that this agreement had any meaningful positive impact during the COVID emergency. (If evidence of significant, positive sharing and collaboration exists please send it our way, we’d be eager to see it.) Instead, COVID highlighted how weak these mechanisms are, especially the North American treaty.

An update? No. The last North American Leaders Summit in which this weakness was recognized was in 2023 when an update of the current North American Pandemic treaty was promised. Given that a pledge was made it’s safe to assume that work is proceeding. But having concrete proof of ongoing work would make the current outbreak easier to bear. Given the devastation of COVID it would make sense that these types of assurances be readily apparent and impossible to miss by those that follow the North American file closely (like us). But that’s not the case and it’s worrying. We expect we’ll have to wait until the next Leader’s Summit for an update on where the planned revision stands. Canada will host that summit, which has not yet been scheduled.

A global response? No. Meanwhile, a global, let’s-apply-the-lessons-of-COVID pandemic treaty has ground to a halt due to differences between advanced and developing countries as well as opposition from the right in the U.S. and also in Canada.

Is there any good news? Kind of.  A reason to worry a bit less about our continued inability to get ahead of potential pandemics comes from, where else, the Washington Post. It’s been a good month for headlines that say it all like this one: Why we shouldn’t panic if bird flu becomes the next pandemic. While the U.S. and Canada have not done well institutionalizing policy responses and agreements, there has been success stockpiling supplies to fight a pandemic including Tamiflu and personal protective gear. So, if you can’t beat it, at least prepare to survive it?

Barbs traded over blanket tariffs

Senior U.S. government trade official: “U.S blanket tariffs on imports a bad idea.” An important asset dropped into the laps of Canadian ag producers worried about market access to the U.S. in the form of public comments by the person most responsible for defending and advancing U.S. ag trade interests, United States Trade Representative’s chief agricultural negotiator Doug McKalip. McKalip called out the hypocrisy of GOP congress members who attacked USTR Katherine Tia for a growing U.S. ag trade deficit while at the same time supporting Trump policies like across-the-board tariff increases that have been proven to seriously harm U.S. ag exporters.

An Inside U.S. Trade article (paywalled) quotes McKalip saying “I am concerned about the rhetoric that’s out there about things like across-the board tariffs on other trading partners …U.S. agriculture is often the very first to feel the effects of those kinds of trade tensions. I feel those are entirely not helpful.”

Readers might recall that last year, Trump promised that if elected he’d impose a new 10 per cent across-the-board tariff on all goods. That, coupled with his proposed 60 per cent tariff on all goods imported from China, could be crippling with analysts suggesting just the 10 per cent tariff could cost businesses and consumers $300 billion. To those quibbling over a rising ag trade deficit, McKalip commented, “Rather than trying to nitpick numbers and try to downplay the fact that we’ve had record agricultural exports…folks in this town ought to be mindful of where some of the real threats exist to the future of American agricultural trade.

The tariffs and the damage done. Support for the McKalip’s argument that tariffs can come back to bite you comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture which found that agriculture bore the brunt of the last U.S. tariff offensive – the 2018 steel and aluminum “national security” tariff. Retaliative tariffs resulted in losses to agriculture of more than $27 billion.

The counter argument for across-the-board tariffs? Reading through texts of the exchanges between U.S. Trade Representative Tai and GOP congress members is the clearest evidence yet that logic and facts will not be enough, and may be of no use, to convince congress members not to take action that will harm the U.S. (and Canada) – like across-the-board tariffs. It’s not enough to trust that that a simple presentation of facts, like those released by the U.S. ag department, will register with U.S. elected officials and the public. What will work? Citing direct ties between punitive tariffs and job losses including mentioning specific companies, specific communities and potentially even individual workers and farmers. A full listen to the complete Ways and Means session presents a solid example of attitudes that need to be countered.

Ag in the Senate hot seat. In addition to the House, the GOP in the Senate is also fixated on the rising U.S. ag trade deficit as noted in a letter signed by 22 senators (or over 1/3 of the Senate) to U.S. Ag Secretary Vilsack and USTR Tai.

An important side note on limits to accommodating U.S. elected officials. The Ways and Means hearing with USTR Tai is largely standard fare until the 3:36 mark when a petulant exchange between Tai and Texas GOP congresswoman Van Duyne takes place. Most striking was the congresswoman’s attack on USTR Tai for opening an APEC meeting by noting that it was being held on the unceded territory and ancestral homeland of the Ramaytush Ohlone. To quote the congresswoman from Texas, “I thought it was called San Franciso, but whatever.” I remember puzzled looks when opening with a similar acknowledgement at a conference in progressive (fruit instead of donuts at the coffee break) Berkley, so I know that surprise from Americans for something that is standard in Canada happens. What’s new and hard to understand is the dismissive hostility.

In a January op-ed, we wrote that attitudes in the U.S. have changed and to be successful in this new reality, Canada must develop a different strategy of engagement. But this incident between Tai and Van Duyne is a caution to the point we made in a more recent op-ed about how to engage the U.S. As we lead up to the North American trade agreement review, the Senate letter and recent Ways and Means hearing are a reminder that the ag trade balance is a contentious issue in the U.S. And unlike messaging around Canada’s energy trade surplus (when you import Canadian energy you import U.S. jobs), there is no obvious positive spin to place on ag imports.

Odds and Ends

It’s been a busy spring at CWF including participation in Bottlenecks and Bridges: North American Infrastructure for the next 30 Years and The Future of North American Cooperation: A Trilateral Webinar. Although participation in the webinars led to a shorter brief, the two roundtables did inform some of our current insights and thinking.

In other news

  • Our good friends at the Latin American Advisor have a ‘question to the experts’ on whether the USMCA will survive its upcoming review, including a response from Canadian and CWF partner Dan Ciuriak. Spoiler alert – lots of uncertainty and lots of issues. We’re hoping to add to Dan’s insights in an update to the question in a future issue of the Advisor’s daily brief.
  • Mexico won the first case to appear before the North American trade agreements’ Rapid Response Mechanism dispute panel. We bet you won’t need Google Translate to understand this statement issued by the Mexican government on the win: ‘ha resuelto a favor de México.’
  • Our worry that Mexico has a strong case in its push to enact a ban on genetically modified corn for human consumption was confirmed in an analysis blog post by noted trade scholar Simon Lester. For those following the issue, the blog post is well worth a few minutes. Although it’s early in the dispute process, it looks as if a second win for Mexico on this North American dispute is possible.
  • The bi-partisan push in the U.S. to expand membership in the North American trade agreement received pushback from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in a policy brief on the administration’s Americas Act (a western hemisphere version of its Indo Pacific Initiative). Interestingly, one argument to prevent countries from the Americas from joining the North American agreement is that protections for U.S. companies are better in bi-lateral agreements than in the North American trade agreement.

Carlo Dade, Director, Trade and Trade Infrastructure

The North America Brief is a compilation of stories and links related to the U.S. and Mexico’s relationship with Canada’s West. The opinions expressed in the links are those of the articles’ authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of the Canada West Foundation and our affiliates.