As the scheduled date for the opening of the U.S. border to live young Canadian cattle approaches, an expert in bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) risk analysis says the practice of feeding animal parts to cattle continues despite warnings by the European Union (EU) and a Health Canada internal report.
"We've now got a problem, yet this was a largely preventable disaster," says William Leiss, a risk analyst at the University of Calgary's Haskayne School of Business and author of the book, Mad Cows and Mother's Milk.
The U.S. has confirmed it will open its border to live feeder and slaughter cattle under 30 months of age on March 7, but Leiss argues there are still too many holes in Canada's feed rules and surveillance system.
The U.S. has said it will delay the opening of its borders to beef from older animals.
|Wendy Dudley, Business Edge|
|Southern Alberta rancher John Cross says animal protein should be removed from all livestock feed, and all cattle over 30 months old should be tested.|
Canada's livestock feed regulations have been called into question following the most recent case of BSE.
The disease was diagnosed in a cow born after a 1997 feed ban that prohibited feeding cattle parts to other cattle, a practice believed to spread the disease. The animal, discovered in January, was a Charolais cow raised west of Innisfail.
Leiss blames the government and the cattle industry for not taking action five years ago, when scientists with the EU warned that BSE likely existed in Canada because of past imports of cattle and cattle feed from the United Kingdom, where the disease was first diagnosed.
A Health Canada draft report, also prepared in 2000 but never made public, noted shortcomings in Canada's feed regulations. It pointed out that Canada still allows cattle blood to be fed to calves and that there was inadequate monitoring of feed mills.
In 2003, an international panel of scientists also recommended Canada remove all high-risk material - called specific risk materials (SRMs) - such as cattle brains and spinal cords, from animal feed.
The Canadian Food and Inspection Agency (CFIA) has yet to implement that ban. With four cases of BSE, all originating in Alberta, there has been a call to expand that ban to include all animal protein to eliminate potential cross-contamination at feed mills and on farms.
"It takes only one-tenth of the size of a peppercorn of infected material to infect a cow," Leiss notes. Human consumption of BSE-infected beef has been linked to a fatal brain-wasting disease, known as variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.
BSE was also recently diagnosed in a goat in the United Kingdom, the first time the disease has been found in an animal outside cattle.
At the time of the EU and Health Canada reports, CFIA officials said the information was hypothetical and inconclusive. Both government and industry leaders believed the 1997 feed ban was effective because BSE had not been detected in Canadian herds. The disease was viewed as a European problem, notes Leiss.
Following the BSE diagnosis in the younger cow, the CFIA came under fire for not recalling feed after the 1997 ban. "At that time we believed we were BSE free. We had a feed ban in place and there hadn't been any cases of BSE," CFIA veterinarian Gary Little said during a press conference.
The CFIA is now reviewing Canada's feed ban, with results expected by the end of this month. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and Food and Drug Administration are also investigating Canada's feed controls. Findings are expected before the March 7 border opening.
Last month, delegates from the U.S.-based National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) travelled to Canada to review its cattle industry regulations. In their report, the team indicated they were satisfied with Canada's BSE testing program and feed-mill operations.
But Leiss argues that prior to Canada's BSE discoveries, the cattle industry suffered from poor risk management. "Testing was minimal. It was a joke," he says, noting that, prior to 2003, less than a thousand cows a year were tested for BSE.
Southern Alberta rancher John Cross also criticizes the CFIA for not taking steps to remove all animal protein from cattle feed. "They've done real poorly. There was no recall of feed after the ban, and that was a non-voluntary risk for consumers."
But rancher Alvin Kumlin, a delegate with the Alberta Beef Producers, said producers and consumers need to give recent changes in the industry a chance.
"We've tested 23,400 cattle, and this year we hope to test 30,000. That's beyond OIE (World Organization for Animal Health) standards. And we're removing SRMs," he noted. SRMs have already been removed from human food and there is also a proposal to remove them from animal feed.
"We can't run around doing the 'Chicken Little' thing," adds Kumlin. "In hindsight, maybe there should have been a feed recall, but now we have to give time to see if the steps being taken will work."
But Leiss says if government and industry officials are serious about eliminating mad-cow disease from domestic herds, they must pull all animal protein from cattle feed.
Europe has such a ban, and last year, the U.S. banned cattle blood in its feed. Some scientists, including Stanley Prusiner who won the Nobel Prize for his discovery of prions, say blood can carry the infectious agent.
The current feed ban, which still allows cattle parts to be fed to non-ruminant livestock, is "radically incomplete," says Leiss, because poultry and pig material is being fed back to cattle. "The (BSE) prion is relatively indestructible, yet it is still being recycled back to cows through pigs and chickens."
Since about two-thirds of a beef carcass cannot be used for human food, disposal could be an issue, says rancher Cross. "But this must be dealt with."
Cross also advocates testing all animals older than 30 months. "Initially that will pick up a bunch of BSE cases, but we could find all the (infected) cows and clean this up quickly," he said. "It would mean short-term pain, but it would be better than this dribbling of cases."
In its testing, the industry targets dead, diseased, dying or down animals (cattle that are unable to walk). "It's too random. It creates instability in the market every time a positive BSE diagnosis is made," Cross says.
Leiss agrees, but believes all cattle should be tested. "We have to take a serious look at the feed, but we also need to know the disease prevalence in the herd. That's one of the keys to a risk- control strategy."
Restricting tests to animals older than 30 months isn't good enough, adds Leiss, noting Japan has discovered BSE in animals younger than two years old.
CFIA officials have said testing all cattle is unnecessary and expensive, and refer to news reports that state Japan is reconsidering its test-all strategy. But Leiss doesn't believe Japan will reduce testing. "That's just Canadian inference," he says. Economic cost should not be used as an excuse for inaction, Leiss adds.
In Britain, where all animal protein was banned from feed in 1996, electricity was generated from incinerating carcasses, he notes.
Government and industry groups insist that "science," and not political trade issues, will be used to develop disease controls. But science is ever-changing, says Leiss, so common sense and precautionary measures are also necessary.
For example, a Swiss study reported last month that prions such as the ones that cause BSE were found in the liver, kidney and pancreas of mice - until now, the prion was thought only to be found in the brains, spinal cord and lymph tissues of infected animals.
"Without a doubt, I think BSE will be found elsewhere. Maybe two thirds of it is in neural tissues, but they'll probably find the other third in organs and low doses in blood," says Leiss. He also believes ranchers will still be forced to reduce their herds and focus on beef product exports, rather than trade in live cattle.
In the U.S., protests against the border opening continue, with some ranch groups and politicians claiming that imports of live cattle will harm their own international markets.
(Wendy Dudley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)