On February 13, 2015, Canada confirmed its 20th case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE or mad cow disease) in a native-born animal. Although Canada obtained confirmation of this latest case on February 11, it withheld information regarding the age of the cow until February 18, 2015.
As shown by R-CALF USA’s BSE lifespan chart, at 71 months of age this beef cow is the sixth youngest BSE-infected cow to be detected in Canada. Also, the cow was born and raised in the province of Alberta, which R-CALF USA refers to as a “BSE hotspot” because, as R-CALF USA’s BSE matrix shows, 75 percent of Canada’s 20 BSE-positive, native-born cattle originated there. Canada’s confirmation also establishes that the cow was infected with classical BSE, which is the strain many scientists believe is spread via the consumption of contaminated feed. In contrast, the atypical strain of BSE typically affects much older animals and is believed by some scientists to occur randomly or sporadically in nature.
All three of the BSE cases detected in native-born United States cattle were of the atypical strain not known to be caused by the now unlawful practice of feeding ruminant tissues to ruminants. The only case of classical BSE detected in the United States was a cow imported from Alberta, Canada, and subsequently detected with the disease in the states of Washington in 2003.
Based on scientific evidence linking the length of the disease’s incubation period to the amount of infectivity ingested, the cow’s relatively young age indicates she had consumed a relatively high level of infectivity, at least as high as that which caused the infection of Canada’s comparably-aged BSE cases detected in 2003, 2006, 2007 and 2008.
Canada resisted making any improvements to its 1997 ruminant-to-ruminant feed ban until after it had detected multiple BSE-positive cattle born well after the implementation of its feed ban, indicating its original feed ban was ineffective at arresting the spread of BSE in Canada. Canada’s enhanced feed ban was then implemented July 2007 and Canada’s newest BSE case is the country’s first recorded BSE case born after the implantation of its upgraded feed ban.
“Given this new evidence that the BSE agent is still circulating in Canada’s animal feed system, it is more likely than not that Canada’s inferior testing program has failed to detect many other BSE-infected cattle, including asymptomatic cattle entering Canada’s food system,” said R-CALF USA CEO Bill Bullard.
Unlike other nations that instituted mandatory testing requirements for cattle entering the food chain after detecting multiple cases of classical BSE, Canada relies only on a voluntary testing program. The mandatory testing programs in the European Union and Japan successfully removed BSE-infected cattle that were entering the food system even though the infected cattle did not show any signs of the disease. This is because testing can identify BSE-positive cattle several months prior to the animal exhibiting any signs of neurological disorder.
Under the United States recently implemented country of origin labeling (COOL) law, beef that is derived from Canadian cattle can be distinguished in U.S. retail grocery stores because all muscle cuts of beef and ground beef are now required to be labeled as to their origin.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit recently concluded that Congress’ objective in implementing COOL included “empowering consumers to take possible country-specific differences in safety practices into account.” The court also acknowledged that COOL can provide economy-wide benefits by “confining the market impact of a disease outbreak.”
“The court found that U.S. consumers can use COOL to avoid purchasing meat from countries like Canada that refuse to implement a responsible testing program to keep diseased animals out of their food system,” Bullard said.
“It is troubling that instead of acting responsibly by adopting the tried-and-proven eradication measures successfully used in the European Union and Japan, the Canadian Minister of Agriculture and other Canadian officials are bulling our U.S. Congress and U.S. citizens into repealing COOL, which is the consumers’ last line of defense when foreign governments try to cut food safety corners.
“Canadian officials are essentially saying that if the U.S. does not agree to hide the origins of their meat in the U.S. market then they will retaliate against us, which is precisely what they are attempting to accomplish with their COOL complaint filed at the World Trade Organization.
“Congress and the public should ignore Canada’s pompous posturing against COOL and instead work to demand that Canada be more responsible in its disease eradication efforts, particularly by implementing a mandatory testing program and strengthening its feed ban,” concluded Bullard.