The trouble with mad cow disease

OTTAWA, Ontario, Canada, April 15, 2005 (ENS): A coalition of Canadian ranchers is suing the federal government for its "grossly negligent" role in handling the crisis over mad cow disease that has left the Canadian beef industry in shambles for close to two years. The suit holds the government and a multinational feed company responsible for more than C$7 billion in damages.

"The loss of billions of dollars by the Canadian cattle industry was the result of gross incompetence and negligence on the part of the Canadian government," said a statement from the group, which filed the suit on Monday. The coalition represents farmers in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario and Quebec.

The lawsuit claims that Agriculture Canada failed to consider safety issues when compiling a list of permitted animal feed ingredients in 1988-1990 and lost track of 80 cattle that had been imported from the UK and Ireland, allowing them to be ground up into cattle feed.

As a result, the suit alleges that BSE infected a number of Canadian cattle, which in turn led to devastating consequences for the Canadian cattle industry.

While the suit does not name the exact amount of compensation being sought, it does mention recent estimates that the cattle industry has lost C$7 billion dollars since May of 2003 when a cow in Alberta died of what was later found to be bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), commonly called mad cow disease.

The United States immediately closed its border to Canadian cattle and beef, and the border remains closed today.

In addition to the federal government, the claim also targets Ridley Corporation Limited, a multinational manufacturer of animal feeds. It argues that Ridley apparently stopped using cattle remains in their parent company's cattle feed in Australia in May of 1996, but continued to use cattle remains in their Canadian feed products until the practice was finally banned by the government of Canada in August 1997.

The claim alleges that the diseased cow that caused the closing of the U.S. border to Canadian cattle and beef in May of 2003, contracted BSE in the spring of 1997 as a result of eating calf starter manufactured by Ridley - starter which contained rendered cattle remains contaminated with the BSE prion.

Prions - abnormally shaped proteins that originate as regular components of neurological tissues in animals - are not cellular organisms or viruses.

Mad cow disease spreads from one animal to another by consumption of feed that has been contaminated by these proteins, such as meat-and-bone meal, that contains nervous system tissue from an infected animal. The human form of the disease can be transmitted if a human being eats BSE infected meat, or through blood transfusions.

"They were grossly negligent in not taking into account the common knowledge and scientific knowledge of how mad cow is transmitted," said Montreal lawyer Gilles Gareau, who is leading the Quebec suit. "The entire world knew about it."

A spokeswoman for Agriculture Minister Andy Mitchell in Ottawa said the government could not comment "until there has been an opportunity to review the full statement and assess the issues."

On March 29, Mitchell announced C$1 billion in immediate federal assistance for cash-strapped Canadian farmers facing record low farm incomes.

The $1 billion Farm Income Payment Program will supplement current federal, provincial and territorial agriculture programs that last year paid out a record C$4.9 billion to farmers. The program will provide assistance to all sectors but will be of greatest benefit to two of the most affected, cattle and other ruminants and grains and oilseeds.

In addition to their share of that payment, cattle and ruminant producers will also receive C$155 million in direct payments based on their inventory as of December 23, 2003 to deal with the income pressures created by the ongoing closure of a number of borders to Canadian live cattle and other ruminants.

"Maintaining cash flow is critical for livestock and ruminant sectors as we wait for the re-opening of the American border and as we work with governments to reposition our sectors to recover from the current crisis and build a strong and more resilient industry for the future," said Canadian Cattlemen's Association President Stan Eby.

Elsewhere, two former U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) veterinarians and a scientist still working at the USDA have charged that at least two 1997 investigations of sick animals were not performed properly, and mad cow disease may have gotten into the human food chain as a result.

Dr. Masuo Doi, a retired USDA veterinarian, Dr. Karl Langheindrich, chief scientist at the USDA laboratory in Athens, Georgia, and Lester Friedlander, a former veterinarian and USDA inspector who was fired in 1995 after allegedly criticizing safety practices within the inspection system, have all made charges that USDA fumbled two tests that might have confirmed the cases of BSE.

Friedlander offered on Tuesday to take a lie detector test after his allegations were met with disbelief.

In another recent event, an animal in St. Angelo, Texas which showed the standard symptoms of mad cow disease was not tested by agricultural inspectors before it was sent to a rendering facility.

USDA spokesman Ed Loyd admits that the Texas case was a mistake due to a "miscommunication" between two government agencies. He said the animal was rendered, but the products never entered the human food supply.

When the only acknowleged U.S. case of mad cow disease came to light in December 2003, more than 40 countries closed their borders to U.S. beef and live animals, causing the same kind of pain in the U.S. cattle industry that Canadian cattlemen had been suffering.

Late last December, the USDA attempted to reopen its beef trade to Canada by declaring its neighbor to the north a "minimal risk" area. But within a week Canadians had found two more mad cows, shaking confidence in the minimal risk designation.

The U.S. and Canada have put rules in place that they say will keep nervous system tissue, most likely to spread the fatal, brain wasting disease, out of the food chain. Earlier this month those standards were harmonized with those of Mexico, so now the three NAFTA countries have agreed to identical practices.

Over the past several weeks, former customers have been trickling back to the U.S. beef market - first Egypt, then Taiwan. But Japan has not returned and that is a big portion of the former market for U.S. beef.

The Japanese test every single animal they slaughter for mad cow disease and they want the U.S. states to adopt the same standard for beef sold to Japan. To date, the USDA has not agreed.

Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns of Nebraska has been on the job just over two months, but so much of his time has been devoted to the BSE crisis, that he jokingly called himself the Secretary of BSE on Wednesday in his remarks to the 13th annual Food and Agriculture Policy Conference in Washington.

He told the delegates exactly what he told the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee earlier this week, "We tested now, in about the last year, 314,000 animals, and we have not found another case of BSE. Americans rightly feel safe about eating our beef products. My job is to help move that forward and to even increase the confidence that our consumers have in this product."

"Human health and animal health will always be our top priority. But in order to make sure that we are protecting human health and animal health, our decisions need to be based upon sound science. It is absolutely critical. It cannot be moved by the politics of the day in any country. In any country," said Johanns.

He said the science is "clearly on our side of the argument."

"We are also working to reopen the Canadian border," said Johanns. "I believe that restoring trade with Canada is in the best interest of American consumers, but it is also in the very best interest of this great industry, the beef industry in our nation."

"I am disappointed by the events recently, but we're going to continue to work at our goal of resuming normal trade relations in beef. The Senate voted to disapprove the [minimal risk] rule that would have reopened the border. That's only a piece of the process, but it was disappointing. The court injunction was entered, and we're doing everything we can to work through that. In fact, that is now on appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. We are appealing that injunction."

So, the mad cow situation is now mired in the courts. While the court deliberates, everyone is hoping that all cows on both sides of the border stay healthy so that the industry can recover.

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