Keep calm and carry on testing.
That’s the message going out to producers following the latest case of BSE in an Alberta cow.
“At times like this, it’s as important, if not more so, to continue with surveillance and be vigilant,” Canadian Food Inspection Agency official Craig Price told attendees at the recent Alberta Beef Industry Conference.
The animal infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy was born in March 2009 — two years after an enhanced feed ban took effect. It died at a farm near Spruce Grove and BSE was confirmed in mid-February. The last confirmed case was in 2011.
“Surveillance is a measuring tool — it doesn’t control the disease, it doesn’t keep the disease out of the food chain, and it doesn’t keep the disease out of the animal feed chain,” said Price, director of the CFIA’s Alberta North region.
As a controlled risk country, it’s acceptable for Canada to have 12 cases of BSE a year. However, the latest single case prompted South Korea to impose a temporary ban on imports of Canadian beef and, at press time, four other countries (Taiwan, Peru, Indonesia, and Belarus) had followed suit.
But those moves only reinforce the need to fulfil Canada’s pledge to the World Organization for Animal Health to test 30,000 animals yearly, said officials.
“We are meeting our targets. But to be honest, in Alberta, we are struggling to meet our individual targets,” said Dr. Gerald Hauer, chief provincial veterinarian with Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development.
“Now is not the time to take our foot off the gas. We still need to collect the samples and demonstrate we have a system that works.”
In a time when cull cows are attracting high prices, all segments of the beef sector — cow-calf producers, feedlot operators, and processors — still need to do their best to keep suspect or inferior animals out of the food chain, the officials said.
And surveillance is especially important with BSE because it has such a long incubation period.
“Surveillance is an investment in the future,” said Hauer. “We don’t do surveillance today and get immediate results. We have to accumulate information over many years, and by doing so, that’s how we all help the industry.”
Investigators have already identified the birth herd and the cow’s date of birth, and are currently looking for equivalent risk animals. The first step is to look for the birth cohort, which includes animals born on the same farm within one year of the birth of the positive animal. This group has the highest risk of being exposed to the same feed. Investigators are also looking for the progeny of the infected animal.
“It’s rare, and relatively undocumented, but there is a possibility that BSE can pass from mother to daughter,” said Price.
Other animals of equivalent risk include the feed cohort, as these animals may have used the same feed bunks or feed mill. The animal itself is also being investigated.
“We want to know who the sire was, who the dam was, and all the progeny; anything around the birth, life and death of that animal that might point to indicators as to how it got sick,” said Price. “What we’re trying to figure out right now is how the animal got sick, and how it caught BSE.”
Equivalent risk animals will be destroyed and tested for BSE.
It was no surprise South Korea closed its borders as it had previously indicated it would if another BSE case was found in Canada, said Price.
“When South Korea decided to open its market (in 2012 after an eight-year ban), it included a protocol to cover this situation,” he said. “We’re in regular conversation with South Korea now, keeping it abreast of what we’re finding, what we know, and when we wrap this investigation up.”
Price said he was not expecting bans from major buyers of Canadian beef.
“They’re respecting the fact that we are a controlled risk country, that we have a job to do right now to investigate the disease and try and figure out how this animal got sick,” he said. “They’re watching and they’re listening, and they’re just paying attention and not signalling anything drastic at this time.”
The age of the cow will have an impact on Canada’s status with the OIE (Organization of World Animal Health). If a country wants to apply for a negligible status, it must wait 11 years after the birth of the infected cow before application. Since the last infected case was born in 2004, Canada could have applied for status this August. However, because the latest infected animal was born in 2009, Canada will not be able to apply for negligible status until 2020.
Controlled status signifies to trading partners that there is some risk of BSE. A negligible status means a country has never had a case of BSE or it has been so long that the chance of a new case is extremely low. Both Australia and the United States have negligible status.