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The Hidden World of Animal Health

field report

The Hidden World of Animal Health

The nation’s leading animal health institutions join forces with Ascent to protect human health, preserve wild populations, and facilitate international trade.


Jeffrey Boutilier, James Spaleta


Canada West Consortium


Uniting Western Canada’s Animal Health Network

The lure of an unclimbed peak is irresistible to climbers.  Putting down the first footsteps in unexplored terrain is exhilarating, and the opportunity to be the first to reach the summit is the adventurer’s equivalent of the moon landing.  It’s even sweeter when you’re the first to do it where many others have tried.  Canada West was an unclimbed peak.  For almost a decade the goal of unifying the provincial animal health network in Western Canada cast a long shadow on those who dreamt of ways to make it happen. 

The Western Canadian provinces account for a staggering proportion of the country’s livestock production.  In 2018 Canadian cattle stocks reached an incredible 11.58 million animals, with 41% of the population concentrated in the province of Alberta alone.  This production density, coupled with an incredibly diverse wild animal population reflective of the West’s unrivalled regional diversity, represents an incredible challenge for the regulatory apparatus designed to safeguard human and animal health, and maintain open trade borders.


Animals get sick.  In production environments, their close proximity to other animals can make an otherwise easily manageable diseases an epidemic in a matter of days.  The impact of an outbreak is almost universally disastrous:


Borders are closed.

Animals are destroyed.

Human health is put at risk.


The majority of policy and operational responsibility for managing these risks is the responsibility of provincial governments.  Unfortunately, wild animals and livestock tend to ignore provincial borders.  The need for intensive collaboration across the provincial network to proactively identify and monitor threats to food security, animal populations, and human health was impaired by policy differences, trade concerns, information sharing challenges and differences in the species of concern in each province.


The collective of Western Provinces (“Canada West”) had a bold vision:  What if we operated as one, shared expertise, resources, and information freely, and stopped letting provincial borders and differences get in the way of good science and animal health management?


They needed a team with experience making ambitious, transformational visions a reality.  Beyond the expertise in crafting the right strategy, they needed the analytical chops to understand the science, speak their language, connect with their peers in the scientific, policy, and livestock communities ,and find new insight in the vast and complex animal health system they had created over decades.


Faced with proposals from across North America, including at least three from big national firms, Canada West chose Ascent to take on this failure-is-not-an-option challenge.

Cows Grazing Image

The majority of policy and operational responsibility for managing these risks is the responsibility of provincial governments.  Unfortunately, wild animals and livestock tend to ignore provincial borders. 


Every day millions of Canadians place their trust in the vast, virtually invisible, network of animal health agencies and laboratories working around-the-clock to ensure the safety of our food supply, keep our borders open to trade, and protect our environment from threats foreign and domestic.  The stakes could not be higher - previous failures of the system have had a staggering impact:


  • In 2003 a case of BSE (mad cow disease) in Alberta led to the ban of Canadian beef exports to the United States and forty other countries that lasted through 2005.  The ban crippled the livestock industry was a shocking introduction to the importance of animal health surveillance for both human safety and international trade to the Canadian public.  Estimates of the cost to the Canadian economy range from $6 and $10 billion.

  • Canada is actively defending against the major risk of African Swine Flu.  This complex pathogen has decimated the Chinese pork export economy (where two-thirds of the global pork supply originates) and represents a major risk to Canadian animals.  This crisis has pushed international pork prices up by over 40% in 2019 alone.

  • Wild animal populations are also a major focus of the animal health system, and rightly so:  in 2019 Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD, a prion disease affecting the nervous system similar to mad cow) spread to 10 new wildlife zones in Saskatchewan.  In 2018 alone, 349 positive cases of CWD were noted in Saskatchewan.  When you consider that number is equal to the cases found in the previous twenty years combined, the magnitude of the risks presented to both the animal and human population who regularly hunts and consumes animals at risk for the disease.

  • For years cases of avian flu have triggered fears over human infection and lead to the destruction of significant poultry flocks.


To keep pace with rapidly emerging threats, respond to outbreak events, keep borders open to trade, and protect human health, the network and mechanisms employed to manage animal health had to evolve.  Animals didn’t pay attention to provincial borders, and the team of administrators and scientists who managed their health had to start approaching cross-border collaboration differently.


The Canada West initiative was an ambitious, multi-phased project aimed to examine how collaboration and coordination among laboratories in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba could be improved. This meant better services available to veterinarians, producers, industry, and animal owners, all while supporting operational and performance-related improvements.  


The initiative originated in the early 2000s, and three previous attempts has explored potential collaboration models ranging from status quo to complete amalgamation.  Unfortunately, these efforts did not invest enough in exploring the complex stakeholder perspective and relationships present across the network and the science driving changes in animal health management practices.  As a result, laboratories previously interested in pursuing increased collaboration became fearful that Canada West, at best, might result in a loss of provincial autonomy or, at worse, negative impacts to their animal populations and industries.   When Ascent took leadership of the initiative,  stakeholders were disengaged, skeptical, and had largely turned against the concept.

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For months the Ascent team criss-crossed the country embedding in the consortium partners’ facilities.  Our multidisciplinary field team’s biologist engaged in a comprehensive review of lab operations, including diagnostic processes and quality assurance processes, while our business leads examined the extensive data generated by Laboratory Information Management Systems (LIMS) and financial reports.  The team’s commitment to developing an on-the-ground understanding of the operational realities of each facility, and the unique animal health challenges and risk vectors they sought to manage, provided us with a unique and accurate understanding of the risk and reward associated with alternative models for collaboration and partnership.   


Our field study was complemented by an exhaustive documentation and research review, as well as fundamental analysis of each lab’s operational performance.  This permitted our team to develop a sound model for determining the economic impact of the labs as a collective – specifically the economic spinoff of their productive activity as well as the impact of their work in preventing negative impacts to trade and health.  This elusive measure, the most fundamental expression of the value of Canada’s investment in animal health, clearly indicated that over $700 million in economic losses were prevented annually by the participating labs – a stunning contribution to the Nation’s public good.


An exhaustive synthesis of the data collected across dozens of systems, hundreds of interviews, and tens of thousands of data points yielded a clear understanding of the complex issues represented by the Canada West concept, including:


  • Deep performance benchmarks;


  • Infrastructure, equipment, and human capital analysis (including specializations and technical expertise);


  • Service offering and pricing model rationalization;


  • Comprehensive stakeholder perspectives;


  • Future state service delivery models;


  • Shared decision-making criteria; and,


  • Detailed financial analysis and value analysis of future state service delivery models.


The Ascent team advanced a fully-detailed model for the future of animal health service delivery amongst the participating labs, and a clear series of supporting recommendations necessary to support a successful transition during an expected five-year implementation.  The concept continues to progress, supported by an exhaustive base on analysis presented in Ascent’s multi-volume report that continues to serve as a respected source of truth when examining new opportunities.  Our data-driven, human-centered approach resulted in a significant restoration of trust amongst the Canada West players and shifted the discussion from conjecture and opinion towards objective analysis and fact-based decision making.  The route to seizing the Canada West opportunity has never been more clear.

Jeffrey Boutilier

Jeffrey Boutilier

President & Chief Strategist

Ascent was founded on Jeff’s desire to challenge people to dig deeper into their environment and themselves to reveal the insights that light the path to market success.  Driven by a passion for adventure, he prefers to seek out inspiration and ideas in the places others are afraid to look.

James Spaleta

James Spaleta


James observes the world through the eyes of a scientist; and brings an insatiable desire to understand the complexity and nuance that shape our world to Ascent.  From mechanics to botany, James’ creativity draws inspiration from his exotic collection of passions. 

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