The painful BSE crisis has led to a major overhaul of Canada’s food safety system

The food safety system has changed dramatically since the so-called mad cow crisis 
grabbed headlines and closed the border a decade ago

Ten years have passed since Canadians learned that bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), better known as mad cow disease, had been discovered in an Alberta dairy cow.

It was a bombshell that closed the border to beef exports, and caused painful financial losses to cattle producers even though Canadians kept buying domestic beef.

While BSE didn’t cause the damage and dislocation that it did in Great Britain, it was a costly exercise to purge it from the national cow herd and reassure foreign customers that Canadian beef was safe. In the end, only 18 infected cows were found among hundreds of thousands of cattle tested for BSE.

But it ushered in a decade of change to government food safety programs, subsequently tested by avian influenza and swine flu, the deadly listeria outbreak of 2008, and last year’s XL Foods fiasco. Food safety experts agree that the big lesson from all these incidents is the need to focus on risk management by identifying and tackling the biggest threats to safe food.

That’s led to the new Safer Food for Canadians Act and recently announced regulatory changes imposing tighter controls and inspections of beef processors to prevent E. coli contamination of meat.

But it’s not just Ottawa that has stepped up its game. The Alberta Prion Research Institute has opened a Biosafety Level 2+ containment lab at the Centre for Prions and Protein Folding Diseases, where the brain-destroying disease is studied along with its human variant, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. As well, provincial and municipal public health officials are now linked into a reporting network for foodborne illness outbreaks. (It was Toronto public health officials who discovered the listeria outbreak that killed more than 20 people.)

The campaign to eradicate BSE went pretty well as officials with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, including then chief veterinarian Brian Evans, predicted it would. With downer and dodgy cattle barred from rendering, tough new feed rules and expanded testing for BSE in place, a trickle of infected cattle was found, with the last one coming in 2009. While it’s possible a few more cases of BSE might still be discovered, there have been no reports of a human case in Canada of CJD from eating BSE-infected domestic beef.

The CFIA has concluded BSE likely entered the country through cattle imported prior to 2000. A 1997 ban on using rendered meat and bone in animal feed combined with a 2005 ban on transporting downer cattle and a 2007 prohibition on rendering of nervous system tissue and other cattle parts, is “expected to lead to the eventual eradication of the disease,” the CFIA says.

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