BSE risk is down, but definitely not out

There was a lot of good news for the Alberta and Canadian beef industry last week, but also a note of caution expressed.

There was a lot of good news for the Alberta and Canadian beef industry last week, but also a note of caution expressed.

On Monday, Nov. 30, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) released its report on the latest case of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), which was found back in February on a farm west of Edmonton.

The good news to come out of the report was that this case the 19th found in Canada since the first outbreak in 2003 was restricted to one cow that was born in 2009 and was from the same birth farm as a case that was found in 2010, which had been born in 2004. The other huge finding was that there was no contamination found of any of the commercial feed, or where that feed was produced.

The report concluded, just like the 2010 case, that the animal contracted the disease through feed that had been stored in the same place as contaminated pre-mixed feed that was from processed and distributed before the 1997 feed ban took effect.

“It only takes an extremely small amount about 1/1000 of a gram of residue from contaminated feed to be ingested to cause the disease. That’s like cutting a pea into 1,000 pieces and the animal eating one tiny piece, a speck of dust literally,” said Rimbey veterinarian Ian Giebelhaus one of a few vets working with Alberta Agriculture on BSE cases.

“The report clearly stated that the feedmills were cleared and there was no other evidence of other possible contamination.”

While all of that is good for the country’s beef industry, as it means nothing will change regarding Canada’s beef exports, but the fact this case was found should give producers a sober second thought according to Giebelhaus.

“While this shows Canada is doing nothing to amplify the BSE situation and we still maintain the enhanced safety precautions on our feed supply, there remains a big message that we need to get across to producers that is Canada, specifically Alberta, need to bring up the number of animals we are testing for BSE,” he said.

“Back in 2003, most producers thought this testing would be a short-term situation, but that is wrong. Testing is going to continue on for decades and, unfortunately, our testing numbers are falling due in part to a too prevalent attitude that “it’s not going to happen to me”. This should matter and be a concern for all producers as it demonstrates to the world we remain serious about BSE.”

Giebelhaus added if the testing numbers keep dropping, even if there are no further BSE positive cases found, that lack of continuity or perceived lack of safety monitoring could give competing markets or countries an easy way to shut Canadian beef products out or a chance to use marketing ploys to state Canadian beef can’t relatively ensure the disease isn’t making into the food chain.

“Let’s not give them that opportunity. If each producer with a dead or downer animal had one tested per year, that would meet Canada’s testing numbers,” Giebelhaus explained.

“It’s a huge value to have the testing done. It helps meet our targets as well as assists in keeping the export markets open. All a producer has to consider is the $380 per carcass in extra export value for cuts that are not normally sold domestically.

“Just call your local vet if you have an animal not fit for slaughter. Get a free visit, free exam, free testing and it all helps the beef industry as a whole maintain our track record of being a good trading partner. We need to keep the borders open and the easiest way to do that is to demonstrate we are looking for BSE and do that in the right places in the right way. Canada has one of the best testing programs in the world but we just aren’t utilizing it to its utmost potential.”

Giebelhaus had hoped to see the CFIA report go a bit further and make a recommendation to have all old grain and feed storage bins destroyed as a way of eliminating this kind of residual contamination of feed.

“Those old bins and storage places that are now holding machinery or motorcycles or just about anything more than likely contain residual traces of potentially BSE contaminated feed. They have been sitting on properties for decades and if a farmer or some new operator decides they should use them again, we could have more cases down the line,” he stated.

“Personally, I would like to see the industry take the initiative to have all of those removed, burned down, destroyed since if there is even a trace of contamination, then all it takes is that minuscule amount to infect another animal and we have the industry going down that same road once again.”