Third Canadian mad cow rouses calls to retain import ban

OTTAWA, Ontario, Canada, January 12, 2005 (ENS): A third mad cow has been identified in Alberta less than two weeks after the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) revealed that an eight year old animal had tested positive for the fatal brain wasting disease. The discovery has raised new beef safety questions south of the border, prompting Congressional hearings and a technical investigation into Canadian beef industry practices.

This is the second infected Alberta cow discovered since the United States said December 29 that its import ban on Canadian beef would be lifted under a new rule that classifies Canada as a "minimal risk" country for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), more usually called mad cow disease.

The finding shakes Canadian hopes that the lucrative beef trade with the United States will resume in March when the ban is scheduled to be lifted. Trying to reassure the public, the CFIA said, "No part of the animal has entered the human food or animal feed systems."

Still, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) officials said they would "expedite sending a technical team to Canada to evaluate the circumstances surrounding these recent finds," despite statements of safety assurance from the agency and the Canadian cattle industry.

"As always, protection of public and animal health is our top priority," said Dr. Ron DeHaven, administrator of the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

"The result of our investigation and analysis will be used to evaluate appropriate next steps in regard to the minimal risk rule published last week," he said.

In the minimal risk rule announced December 29, 2004, the USDA said Canada has safeguards in place that minimize the risk of spreading BSE.

These safeguards include a ban on feeding parts of ruminant animals such as cows, sheep and goats to other cattle, known as the ruminant-to-ruminant feed ban. Both the United States and Canada imposed this ban in 1997.

The infected cow announced Tuesday was born after the 1997 feed ban was put in place, raising questions about the effectiveness of this ban.

DeHaven said the U.S. technical team would investigate "since this animal was born shortly after the implementation of Canada's feed ban and to determine if there are any potential links among the positive animals."

The BSE infectious agent is a misfolded protein known as a prion that can be present in the brains, spinal cords and intestines of infected animals. To prevent spread of the disease, these parts, known as specified risk materials must be removed from animals older than 30 months before they are used as human food.

The existence of these two safeguards in Canada are behind the USDA's decision to call Canada a minimal risk country and announce that the ban on import of Canadian beef from animals older than 30 months would be lifted on March 7.

The ban was imposed in May 2003 when Canada revealed its first native case of mad cow disease. A previous case was found in 1989 in a cow imported from the UK where BSE infected hundreds of thousands of head of cattle in the late 1980s and 1990s.

The Canadian Cattlemen's Association attempted to reassure people on both sides of the border that the additional diagnosis of BSE in an Alberta cow "falls within expected parameters and does not change Canada's status as a minimal risk country."

The surveillance being carried out is well above the level recommended by the World Animal Health Organization (OIE), the Canadian industry association said, and the "two diagnoses within the past two weeks indicate that the surveillance program is successfully finding any BSE cases that may exist."

The level of BSE in the Canadian herd is low and continues to decline as a result of the ruminant-to-ruminant feed ban introduced in 1997, the Canadian cattlemen said.

The feed ban began in August 1997, but there was no recall issued at that time on feed ingredients already in the system, the Canadian association said, explaining that the March 1998 birth date of the newly announced BSE case "is likely the result of exposure to pre-feed ban feed that was still residual in the system and does not indicate a lack of feed ban compliance at this stage of the investigation."

But at least one group of American cattle producers is taking legal action to keep the import ban in place. The Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America (R-CALF USA) filed suit Monday in U.S. District Court asking the court to overturn the USDA's minimal risk rule.

R-CALF CEO Bill Bullard said Tuesday that his organization presented "scientific evidence" to the USDA in December 2004 that suggest that "Canada has a greater BSE problem than what they have led us to believe, and this latest case of BSE proves that our position is correct, and that this rule should be withdrawn."

Canada is only removing specified risk materials from animals older than 30 months of age, said Bullard, but according to standards established by the World Animal Health Organization, Canada should be removing these materials from animals older than six months of age.

"The only responsible course of action for USDA, given this new finding, is to immediately withdraw the final rule," said Bullard. "Should USDA fail to withdraw the Final Rule, R-CALF is asking that Congress use its authority to reject the rule completely.”

The minimal risk rule is now under a 60 day congressional review, and Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Saxby Chambliss, a Georgia Republican, said his committee would hold hearings on the rule during the first week of February.

“The Canadian government’s announcement today confirming a second case in a month of BSE from a Canadian born cow raises some serious questions regarding Canada’s compliance with its feed ban,” Chambliss said Tuesday.

“Today’s discovery is a real signal that we need to pull the new rule that is set to open the border to Canadian beef in March,” said Montana Senator Conrad Burns on Tuesday.

“Until we move forward with the pending hearings in the Ag Committee, and until we do some more investigation into this situation, I do not feel that going ahead with this rule is a smart move," said Burns, a Republican.

"The flaws in this rule could harm not only our Montana producers, but also consumer confidence and our international markets," Burns said. "This is a huge issue, and we cannot afford to move hastily when moving forward may have an incredibly negative impact on our country.”

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

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