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Comment: The system works

Our BSE protective curtain is on show with Case 19

Just when we thought we were slipping out from under the weight of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) it pulls us back in.

I’m pretty sure every cattle producer and anyone connected with the beef industry clinched when they heard another positive cow had turned up in Alberta last month. After four years of negative tests BSE was starting to slip into the history books in people’s minds. Now it’s back, front and centre in headlines sent round the world.

It’s easy to get discouraged with this disease, so it’s important to remember that we are winning the fight. It’s just going to take longer than we hoped.

As every statement from every government and industry organization took pains to point out after the news first broke, this is not a food safety issue. No part of this animal entered the human food chain or animal feed supply. In fact, the cow never left the farm until it was hauled away for disposal. The same could be said for the 27,604 dead, diseased and distressed high-risk animals over 30 months of age that were screened for BSE last year. None moved anywhere until they tested negative for BSE.

The system works. It was expensive and painful to assemble but it does work. A lot has been learned in the last 12 years and much of it was on display after the first test was taken Feb. 7 on a farm northwest of Edmonton. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) confirmed the result Feb. 11, notified our trading partners Feb. 12, and announced the news Feb. 13. If the cow had had a CCIA ID tag her herd of origin could probably have been announced the same day. As it was, the farm was located and quarantined Feb. 17 and her birth date released Feb. 18. What once took weeks, now takes days to accomplish.

This 19th case does present some additional wrinkles since she was born in March 2009, 21 months after the enhanced feed ban went into effect in July 2007.

With the network of restrictions on the removal and disposal of specified risk material that came in with the enhanced ban it’s hard to imagine how this animal ever got near an infected prion as a calf back in 2009. Ruminant tissues were banned from ruminant rations in 1997, and by the time this cow was infected specified risk materials from cattle carcasses were banned from all livestock feeds, pet food and fertilizers to avoid any cross-contamination.

In a statement the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association said it’s not unprecedented to find a small number of additional cases of BSE following the implementation of enhanced feeding measures. The U.K. ran into several of them after its reinforced feed ban was introduced. On-farm investigations later concluded that a small amount of residual feed produced prior to the implementation of enhanced control measures was the most likely reason for these cases. Spain ran into cases up to four years after their feed ban.

Paul Mayers, CFIA vice-president for policy and programs seems confident that they will determine the source of the feed used at the birth farm in 2009 and says they’ll also assess any potential risk from other surviving animals on the birth farm that could have been exposed to the same feed. If any are found, they will be culled and tested for BSE. CFIA inspectors will review the records of the feed mills involved to verify their compliance with the enhanced feed ban.

Mayers says Bill C-18, the omnibus Agricultural Growth Act before Parliament includes provisions that enhance the power of the Feeds Act and Health of Animals Act that will provide CFIA with even more regulatory “tools” in these type of situations.

Regulation and restrictions seem to go hand in hand with any attempt to extinguish BSE from our national herd, or at least get it down to the point where we can apply to upgrade Canada’s status to one of negligible risk for BSE.

Sadly, that is one of the first casualties of Case 19. A country cannot even apply to upgrade its status from “controlled risk” to “negligible risk” until 11 years after the birth of its youngest case of BSE. Our previous case was born in 2004 so CFIA was preparing to start the process this fall. Following the same rules we won’t be eligible again until 2020, but some sources believe that date could be up for discussion.

This one case won’t affect Canada’s controlled risk status but as this issue is going to press we were still waiting to see how it would impact export shipments. By press time we’d heard from South Korea and Indonesia but hopefully they will reopen their borders as soon as CFIA provides full details on Case 19.

At the speed CFIA is moving that might already have happened by the time this issue hits your mailbox.

About the author

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Gren Winslow

Gren Winslow is a past editor of Canadian Cattlemen.

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