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No beef over latest mad cow cases

CALGARY, Alta. - Shortly after announcing increased feed ban restrictions to further lower mad cow disease rates, two such cases herded the attention of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) at t...

CALGARY, Alta. – Shortly after announcing increased feed ban restrictions to further lower mad cow disease rates, two such cases herded the attention of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) at the National Reference Laboratory in Winnipeg.

Despite the two confirmed cases of BSE on Canadian farms in the span of a week, cross-border beef exports will continue to be accepted south of the border.

“It’s obviously unwanted, but should have no major impact on trade,” said Dr. George Luterbach, veterinarian with the CFIA. “There should not be any effect because of the measures we have in place. The situation in 2003 is not likely to occur.”

The CFIA lab confirmed the suspected cases of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in a mature cross-bred beef cow from Manitoba and from a 50-month old dairy cow from Alberta by mid-July. CFIA officials have stated that the detections are consistent with a low level of disease and do not indicate an increased risk of BSE in Canada.

In May, 2005 the system changed in the way the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) categorized BSE as a risk.

“There used to be an international standard that said if you have one case per one million cattle in one year, which would be 13 in Canada, you went from minimal risk to high risk,” Luterach told Truck West. “We’re not using that standard anymore, it has to do with the controls in place. We have the controls in place so we’re in the one-off category.”

Alberta Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development Doug Horner issued a statement in January assuring continued trade with the US, after the first BSE confirmation in 2006 and the ministry confirmed all trade is still status quo. However the two findings came at a time when the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) was in the midst of increasing Canadian beef and cattle imports.

The US along with several other countries closed their borders to Canadian beef following Canada’s first domestic finding of BSE in 2003. The US border opened to Canadian beef in September, 2003 and then to live cattle younger than 30 months of age in July, 2005.

The border closure crippled the nation’s multi-billion dollar cattle and beef export industry. In 2002, prior to the first BSE finding, total cattle and beef exports hit $3.9 billion, the equivalent of $11 million in sales each day. By 2004 export sales dipped to $1.9 billion. With the border open to both cattle and beef, the value of daily exports recently climbed to $8.4 million.

The cattle industry was expecting a further boost as US officials were in the final consideration stages of resuming imports of Canadian beef older than 30 months of age. The July cases have delayed plans to reduce restrictions on Canadian beef until a full investigation is completed.

“While the United States and Canada have a strong system in place to protect animal and human health, the diagnosis of BSE in an animal born roughly four and half years after the implementation of the 1997 ruminant-to-ruminant feed ban does raise questions that must be answered,” said US Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns in a statement following the confirmation of the second July BSE case.

The two positive BSE findings were Canada’s sixth and seventh occurrences since the initial finding in 2003. In both cases the CFIA has stated that no part of the cows entered the human food or animal feed systems.

Both cases were identified through the national BSE surveillance program. Canada’s surveillance program, which targets cattle most likely to be affected by BSE, has tested more than 115,000 animals since Canada’s first BSE case.

High-risk cows are animals that have been found dead, down, distressed or dying. That group, according to Luterbach, will contain most, if not all the BSE suspects.

“It’s conceived and supported by stats that BSE is not a common occurrence in Canada,” he stated. “When the border was closed, we believed BSE was not common or widespread; but with our surveillance, confidence was not as high. We have a lot more statistical evidence now that this is a rare finding in Canada.”

Animals that fall into the high-risk category are required by law to be reported to the nearest CFIA veterinarian.

“It’s not one thing, but the combination of measures that helps human and animal health in Canada and abroad,” added Luterbach.

In late June the CFIA unveiled new measures to strengthen Canada’s feed controls. Cattle tissues capable of transmitting BSE will be banned under the new controls from all animal feeds, pet foods and fertilizers.

The enhancement will not go into effect until July 2007, but according to CFIA officials, the move will significantly accelerate Canada’s progress toward eradicating the disease by preventing more than 99% of any potential BSE infectivity from entering the Canadian feed system.

The banned tissues, which are known as specified risk material (SRM), have been shown in infected cattle to contain concentrated levels of the BSE agent. This measure is internationally recognized as the most effective way to protect the safety of food from BSE.

“This ban tightens already strong, internationally recognized feed controls and shortens the path we must follow to move beyond BSE,” stated Chuck Strahl, Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food and Minister for the Canadian Wheat Board. Canada’s current feed ban has prohibited the use of SRM in feed for cattle and other ruminant animals since 1997. Extending SRM controls to all animal feeds attempts to address potential contamination that could occur during feed production, transportation, storage and use.

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