Another Canadian mad cow raises cross-border fear again

WASHINGTON, DC, January 4, 2005: The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) has confirmed that a dairy cow from Alberta has tested positive for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), usually called mad cow disease, just four days after the United States lifted a mad cow ban on the import of Canadian beef. "No part of the animal entered the human food or animal feed systems," the CFIA said in Ottawa. "This finding does not indicate an increased risk to food safety."

This identification of this diseased animal did not cause the U.S. government to reverse its decision to lift an 19 month import ban and allow Canadian beef to cross the border in March, a move announced announced December 29, 2004 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
The USDA imposed a ban on the import of Canadian beef in May 2003 after the first native Canadian case of mad cow disease was identified, also on an Alberta farm.

Removal of the import ban is based on a new final rule defining "minimal risk regions for BSE, along with the classification of Canada as the first minimal risk region under the rule," U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman announced.

But American cattlemen say removal of the import ban is premature and they are asking that the new rule be withdrawn immediately.

"There is a serious BSE problem in Canada and there has been no comparable problem in the United States," said Bill Bullard, CEO of the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America (R-CALF USA).

"USDA must require Canada to begin mandatory BSE testing for all Canadian cattle over 20 months of age, so the prevalence of BSE in native Canadian cattle can be determined and appropriate steps taken to help Canada eradicate BSE from its cattle herd, rather than to put our consumers at risk or risk spreading the disease to the U.S. cattle herd," he demanded.

Based in Billings, Montana, R-CALF represents thousands of U.S. cattle producers on domestic and international trade and marketing issues.

But USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service Administrator Ron DeHaven said Monday that the USDA "remains confident that the animal and public health measures that Canada has in place," ensure the safety for U.S. meat eaters and livestock.

"The extensive risk assessment conducted as part of USDA's rulemaking process took into careful consideration the possibility that Canada could experience additional cases of BSE," said DeHaven, a veterinarian.

"Confirming BSE in this animal is not unexpected," the CFIA also said.

Transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, such as mad cow disease and its human form, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD), are spread by prions - abnormally shaped proteins that originate as regular components of neurological tissues in animals such as the brain and spinal cord. They are not bacteria or viruses.

Mad cow disease spreads from one animal to another by consumption of feed that has been contaminated by these proteins, such as blood or meat meal that contains nervous system tissue from an infected animal. In 1997, a ban on cattle feed containing blood or meat meal was put in place in Canada and in the United States to contain the possible spread of BSE.

The infected animal identified on Sunday was born in 1996, prior to the introduction of the 1997 feed ban, the Canadian agency said on December 30, explaining, "It is suspected that the animal became infected by contaminated feed before the feed ban."

Canada's public health safeguards have been developed on the assumption that a low, declining level of BSE remains in North America, the CFIA said.

Canada requires the removal of specified risk material from all animals entering the human food supply, saying that this measure is internationally recognized as the most effective means to protect public health from BSE.

In addition to the removal of specified risk materials and the feed ban, Canada has in place a national surveillance program and import restrictions. The infected animal was detected through the recently enhanced national surveillance program, the CFIA said. "Additional cases may be found as testing of high-risk cattle continues."

As a result, the United States continues to consider Canada as a minimal risk region. As stated in the United States Department of Agriculture press release of December 30, 2004, the United States will not alter the implementation of its minimal risk rule that opens the door to resume trade with Canada.

"According to the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) guidelines, a country may be considered a BSE minimal-risk country if it has less than two cases per million cattle over 24 months of age during each of the previous four consecutive years," explained the USDA's DeHaven.

"Considering Canada has roughly 5.5 million cattle over 24 months of age, under OIE guidelines, they could detect up to 11 cases of BSE in this population and still be considered a minimal-risk country, as long as their risk mitigation measures and other preventative measures were effective," DeHaven said.

But American cattlemen are not satisfied with this explanation.

“Based on USDA’s own description of the incubation period for BSE, this native Canadian cow most likely became infected with BSE after Canada implemented its meat-and-bone meal (MBM) feed ban in 1997, suggesting that Canada’s MBM feed ban was not enforced,” said Bullard.

They assert that on December 31, the CFIA "confirmed that the infected Canadian cow was only eight years old."

However, a statement by the CFIA on January 2 again says, "The infected animal was born in 1996, prior to the introduction of the 1997 feed ban."

Still the American cattlemen are worried. “This is the third confirmed case of BSE in native Canadian cattle found in less than two years, and all three native Canadian BSE-infected cattle were found using only very limited BSE testing,” Bullard said.

“It is critically important for everyone to understand this is Canada’s third publicly acknowledged case of BSE in a native Canadian cow in the past 20 months, not its second case,” Bullard emphasized.

“The United States has never detected a BSE-positive animal in our domestic cattle herd," he said. "U.S. cattle producers are asking the media to help correct the misperception that the United States has ever had a case of BSE in our native cattle herd. The BSE cow found in the U.S. in December 2003 was not part of the U.S. native cattle herd, but was a cow imported from Canada’s native cattle herd."

Bullard says his membership believes that "the true prevalence of BSE in Canada is likely to be much higher than previously assumed, and USDA is dangerously premature in its efforts to relax U.S. health and safety standards by forcing Canadian cattle under 30 months of age – and Canadian beef from cattle of all ages – to be allowed into the U.S. beginning March 7th.”

“We are deeply concerned that despite the known and expanding prevalence of BSE within its domestic cattle herd, Canada continues testing only cattle that already exhibit BSE disease symptoms,” Bullard said.

"We believe Canada should follow a much more rigorous testing program to determine the prevalence of BSE in its cattle herd to protect its consumers and to prevent the spread of this disease," said Bullard.

The CFIA is continuing its investigation and has determined the infected animal's farm of origin. Efforts are now underway to identify any other animals of similar risk.

Specifically, the agency is focusing on two categories of animals: recently born offspring of the infected animal and cattle born on the same farm within a year of the infected animal.

The agency has also launched a feed investigation "to examine what the infected animal was fed early in its life, when infection was most likely to have occurred prior to the 1997 feed ban."

Given the age of the animal, it may not be possible to definitively identify a particular feed source as the origin of infection, the CFIA said. However, said the agency "information gathered through investigations and analyses continues to suggest that the feed ban has limited the spread of BSE since its implementation."

Canada discovered its first clinical case of BSE in 1993 when a cow imported from Great Britain in 1987 tested positive for the disease.

In 1989, Canada banned import of cattle from the United Kingdom and traced all imported cattle to their Canadian farms of origin, where they were monitored and eventually destroyed. "Before this time, when BSE had not emerged as a significant animal health threat, it is likely that some imported animals entered the North American feed system," the CFIA acknowledged.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2005. All Rights Reserved.

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