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No surprise with latest BSE case

There is an old saying that if you look for something long enough – the odds are you will find it - especially if its waiting


There is an old saying that if you look for something long enough – the odds are you will find it - especially if its waiting to be discovered. So it was with the latest BSE case discovered in northern Alberta. There was some surprise expressed by industry organizations and government as it was thought that the main source of BSE infection, that being contaminated feed, had been removed from the animal food chain many years ago. Authorities are now trying to find out if there was a breach in the supply chain that somehow caused new feed contamination. If that is found to be true it would have to preclude that somehow BSE still exists in the cattle herd in order to contaminate the feed. Such an assumption has some validity due to the nature of BSE which is common to other related diseases like CJD in humans, CWD in cervids, and scrapie in sheep.

That nature is there may be genetic or hereditary factors involved along with the proverbial “one in million” outbreak. Both CJD and BSE have seen the latter with atypical cases diagnosed that seem unrelated to other factors. For instance a number of years ago, there was a BSE case in Texas that was not connected to feed or genetics. That case gained some notoriety as its discovery was either conveniently delayed or covered up for almost a year by American authorities. BSE testing in the USA is less robust than in Canada. Proportionately the USA does less BSE testing than Canada.

To date it has not been determined whether the recent case was a one in a million atypical case or is connected to contaminated feed. The European experience with BSE has been that more disease outbreaks will be found, atypical or otherwise, when more testing is done. For many years the European Union, unlike North America, had a mandatory BSE testing program for almost all cattle that were slaughtered. That robust program probably eliminated future genetic factors in transmitting the disease as more related cattle were also destroyed. That program also found BSE in cattle that showed no clinical signs of the disease and in younger animals. Since then the EU BSE testing program has been relaxed as few cases have been found in recent years. It would be interesting to see an analytic study as to which BSE testing approach was more successful, European or North American.

The dilemma Canadian and American government veterinary officials find themselves in is that their BSE testing programs are essentially voluntary. That creates problems in the sample submission process as there is a perverse incentive for cattle producers, that being the more BSE testing samples that are submitted the more likelihood that an outbreak (s) will be found. All cattle producers are painfully aware of past devastating economic and marketing consequences of a BSE outbreak, hence their reluctance to submit samples.

Governments have tried to overcome that reluctance in the past by providing financial incentives to producers and veterinarians to submit samples. That worked to an extent, but as subsidies were reduced, submissions were reduced. Government authorities and industry organizations then engaged in a promotion exercise that was basically counter-intuitive. Their position stated that more BSE testing was needed in order to improve Canada’s BSE standing under international trade rules. That’s an admirable approach to improve our beef trade position, but it was based on the hopeful premise that no further BSE cases would be found.

I expect many cattle producers had a more common sense perspective - that being less testing would reduce the risk of discovering more cases which would cause our export markets to close. Which is exactly what has started to happen with the latest BSE case with Taiwan, South Korea, China, Indonesia and Peru banning imports of Canadian beef. If our major beef markets like the USA and Japan take the same trade action we will be repeating the Canadian beef marketing crisis of 2003.

The new BSE case has effectively stalled the plan to improve our disease standing with the international animal health authority. You can also expect that cattle producers will be in no hurry to send in more tissue samples for BSE testing. But that testing must be done in order to maintain the BSE control status that we still have – it’s a confounding predicament to say the least. One suspects that a mandatory tissue submission process could be in the works.