Alberta and Canadian livestock producers hope a new cattle-identification program will prevent a mad-cow disease epidemic like the one which has crippled Britain’s beef industry.
And with recent outbreaks of the deadly disease in France, Germany, Denmark and other European countries, the need for such a program is stronger than ever, say cattle industry officials.
The Canadian Cattle Identification ear-tagging program (CCIA) will allow the progeny and herd mates of animals diagnosed with mad-cow disease to be quickly traced and destroyed.
Medical research involving Canada is also under way to develop a test to detect in live animals the existence of the disease-specific prion protein which is found in animals with mad-cow disease, also known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE).
Such diagnostics could detect the disease before the animal showed symptoms and reduce the risk of BSE pathogens in animals being transmitted to people. It is believed the prion protein accumulates in the brain of cattle at least six months before symptoms occur.
Presently, mad-cow disease can only be confirmed by examining the brain tissues of a dead animal.
The mad-cow disease panic began in Britain in the late 1980s, when BSE in cattle was linked to the human form of the fatal brain-wasting ailment known as variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD). At least 90 people in Europe have died of vCJD after eating infected meat. There have been no reported cases of vCJD in Canada, but there was a reported case of mad-cow disease in Alberta in 1993.
Without a test yet to determine if BSE exists in a live animal, Canada’s cattle-identification program — which went into effect Jan. 1 — is an important tool in controlling the disease which could destroy the country’s beef industry, said Greg Conn, chairman of the Alberta Cattle Commission.
The program will also help ensure consumer confidence at a time when the public has growing concerns about food safety, he said.
Such programs already exist in Australia, New Zealand, the U.K. and Mexico. The U.S. is expected to develop a program over the next three years.
Under Canada’s program, all cattle must be pierced with a bar-code tag bearing an identification number before they leave their herd of origin. The unique number allows any diseased animal, as well as its offspring and herdmates, to be traced without having to unnecessarily quarantine all animals, said Julie Stitt, general manager of the CCIA.
It is expected most countries will eventually ban imports of beef from all nations without similar identification programs, said Conn.
While some ranchers initially opposed the program because of the cost (about $1 per animal) and time involved in tagging, most now recognize its benefit in protecting their herds and livelihood, Conn said.
The identification program falls under the federal Health of Animals Act, and carries a fine of $500 for untagged animals. The law will be enforced by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Identification numbers will be kept in a national electronic database.
With 50 per cent of Canada’s beef and dairy cattle exported (worth $2.75 billion in 1999), the industry could not survive a lengthy export ban, he said. “We could probably handle our borders being closed for a couple of days, but not a couple of weeks or months.”
About 30 per cent of Alberta’s beef is exported to the U.S. and overseas. Canada once had a trace-back system to eradicate tuberculosis and brucellosis, said Stitt. About 95 per cent of the national herd was identified, but after 1985 — when Canada was declared free of brucellosis — that number dropped to 10 per cent of the national beef herd, she said.
The outcome of Canada’s only documented case of mad-cow disease proves the importance of the CCIA program, said Joanne Lemke, the Alberta Cattle Commission’s public affairs manager.
In 1993, an infected cow near Red Deer was destroyed. It was a purebred British import which required papered registration.
Because of the registration, the cow’s progeny and herdmates were easily traced across the country, said Lemke. “That’s why it is so important to have individual identification. If that animal had not been traced, we probably would have had a situation like Britain.”
While Canada insists its herds are BSE-free, it was recently criticized by the European Commission for what it believes are gaps in inspections of cattle feed supplements.
Canada banned British beef and byproducts in 1990, but it wasn’t until 1997 that it became illegal to feed meat and bonemeal and other mammalian animal parts to cows, sheep, elk and goats, which are susceptible to similar BSE diseases.
Animals can contract BSE by eating feed which contains remnants of infected animals, such as the brain and spinal cord.
The feed, however, could be fed to poultry and pigs and a recent U.S. report revealed hundreds of rendering plants and feed mills in that country failed to comply with feed regulations intended to prevent cross-contamination.
But there is no threat in Canada because it has never imported its cattle feed from Britain or Europe, said Dr. Ron Rogers of the animal-health division of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
“The feed is domestically produced from our herds. And our herds are BSE-free,” he said.
On the research front, Canada is working with the U.S. to develop the test which would detect the disease in a live animal, Rogers said. The work is being done on sheep, which can carry scrapie, one of the transmissible spongiform encephalopathies which includes BSE.
However, much remains unknown about the TSE diseases, said Rogers.
“We all agree that an abnormal protein is being found (in diseased animals.) But is something causing that to happen, or is it in itself the cause of the infection?”
To date, no one even knows the incubation period, he said.
“And you need to know the cause of the disease to know the incubation period,” he added.
“This is a very complex thing to sort out.”