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The bovine TB mystery may never be solved

Health: News Roundup from the January 2018 issue of Canadian Cattlemen

While there is no doubt several ranching operations in Alberta and Saskatchewan took it on the chin, Canada has come through the discovery of a single TB case in 2016 still with a “TB Free” country status and no significant market disruption, says an official with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA)

While there was only one infected animal from a southern Alberta ranch found in the supply chain, and then a total of six confirmed cases in that one herd of origin, the CFIA cast a broad net to assure the Canadian industry and world markets the disease had gone no further, Rick James-Davies, area chief inspector with CFIA told delegates attending the Alberta Beef Producers recent annual general meeting.

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It was a time-, labour- and money-consuming effort to nip the TB issue in the bud, James-Davies said, but it was necessary to protect the reputation and health status of the Canadian beef industry.

Overall, they found six confirmed cases of TB in one herd. The investigation resulted in 11,500 animals on 23 farms being destroyed, with so far $39 million in compensation being paid out through the Health of Animals Act. A further $16.7 million has been allocated to assist affected Alberta producers under a separate Canada-Alberta Tuberculosis Assistance Initiative. The entire investigation involved 150 farms across Canada with a total of about 150,000 head tested.

In the final Phase 3 of bovine TB investigation, James-Davies says the last of about 15,000 head of cattle are being tested with all results expected by the end of 2017.

“The big question on everyone’s mind is where did this disease come from,” says James-Davies. “And the fact is we may never really know how it showed up in this one Alberta herd.” This particular strain of bovine tuberculosis has been found in Mexico and there have been isolated reports of it in the U.S., but how it ended up in a herd of cattle near Jenner, Alta., east of Brooks is so far a mystery.

While this single case of TB triggered an extensive investigation, overall the system worked says James-Davies. Phase 1 largely concentrated on shutting down animal movement and launching of the emergency investigation. Phase 2 involved looking five years back to determine where cattle from this particular ranch might have gone (the trace-out). That involved checking 79 premises. And Phase 3 involved looking for the source of the disease by investigating all premises that in some way supplied cattle to the ranch (the trace-in).

James-Davies says one of the trace-out premises is still under quarantine but otherwise there has been no evidence the disease spread from the infected Alberta ranch.

Along with cattle testing, investigators also tested some 1,258 head of elk harvested from the nearby Suffield Military Base with no evidence of TB in those animals.

While the ear tagging system developed by the Canadian Cattle Identification Agency was certainly a help in tracing the movement of cattle in any way associated with this TB outbreak, it wasn’t the only tracking tool used. James-Davies says they also had to rely on farm-applied ear tags, brands, brand inspection reports, shipping manifests, auction and producer records — it was a very time- and labour-intensive process.

He says improving traceability will be a benefit in the event of future disease investigations. He also noted that communications to and among all parties is crucial during these investigations and he credited the ABP with its role as an industry liaison providing effective communication to and from the CFIA.

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