Canada BSE discovery raises meat industry fears

Related tags Cattle Bovine spongiform encephalopathy Canada

Another case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) has been
reported in Canada, raising fears that public confidence in beef
could be further undermined, writes Anthony Fletcher.

The discovery earlier this month of the infected Alberta beef cow just under seven years of age could have repercussions for the Canadian beef industry. The US border was closed to live Canadian cattle in May 2003 after a single cow with bovine spongiform encephalopathy was discovered in Alberta, and the financial repercussions have been severe.

Further discoveries therefore have the potential to frighten other export markets and keep doors firmly closed.

However, Canada has reassured the public that as part of its surveillance programme, no part of the animal was able to enter the human food or animal feed systems. Public health remains protected through the removal of specified risk material (SRM) from all animals slaughtered for human food. SRM are tissues that, in infected animals, contain the BSE agent.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) claims that this measure is internationally recognised as the most effective public health measure against BSE. US officials have been informed of the suspect case of BSE, and Canada is confident that the discovery will not have a significant or lasting impact on efforts to normalise trade.

"We remain confident that the animal and public health measures that Canada has in place to prevent BSE, combined with existing US domestic safeguards, provide the utmost protections to US consumers and livestock,"​ said Ron DeHaven,administrator of the animal and plant health inspection service of the USDA.

"However, 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, we will expedite sending a technical team to Canada to evaluate the circumstances surrounding these recent finds."

The main worry therefore for the Canadian meat industry is not that the meat supply is infected, but rather, the effect such a case has on public perceptions of food safety. It is a valid worry. The Canadian beef industry has lost an estimated $5 billion (€3.8 bn) since the BSE discovery last year, according to a new report from BMO's Economics Department.

"In economic terms, the closing of the border has been devastating to Canadian ranchers and their families,"​ said Rick Egelton, senior vice-president and deputy chief economist, BMO financial group.

"Cattle producers have been hit by lower output, weaker prices, and narrowing margins."

Meat packers have also been badly hit by the embargo on Canadian cattle and beef exports. Slaughter fell sharply in June this year and, on a monthly basis, ran below the previous year's levels for the rest of 2003.

The CFIA is now investigating what the animal may have been fed early in its life and the source of the feed. The infected animal was born in March 1998, and the farm of origin has been confirmed. Based on preliminary information, feed produced prior to the introduction of the 1997 feed ban in Canada remains the most likely source of infection in this animal.

The infected animal was detected through the recently enhanced national surveillance programme. Additional cases may be found as testing of high-risk cattle continues. In 2004, the Government of Canada tested over 22,000 animals.

Canada's science-based BSE safeguards to protect public and animal health have been designed with the understanding that BSE is potentially present in a small and declining number of animals. This includes animals born before and shortly after the 1997 feed ban. The Canadian government continues to believe that the ruminant to ruminant feed ban introduced in 1997 has limited the spread of BSE and remains effective.