Alberta on high alert over first case of mad cow disease since 2011

CALGARY – Ranchers in Alberta are on high alert as regulators have confirmed a single beef cow has been infected with mad cow disease, which could hurt efforts to improve the global health risk rating of Canadian cattle and the demand for domestic beef in key export markets.

Canadian ranchers still harbour painful memories of 2003, when regulators found a cow in Alberta was sick with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), commonly called mad cow disease. At that time, 40 countries placed export bans on Canadian beef.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency has confirmed the first new case of BSE in a cow since 2011 but said, “no part of the animal’s carcass entered the human food or animal feed systems.”

Mad cow disease is usually contracted when a cow consumes protein from the brain or spinal cord of an infected sheep or cow, which was how this most recent cow became infected with BSE, the CFIA confirmed Friday afternoon.

While the agency said it did not expect the case to affect Canadian beef exports, data from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada show that year-over-year beef and veal exports plummeted more than 17% the last time a cow infected with BSE was identified in 2011.

“It could create a bit of a backup that could affect the supply [of beef],” the general manager of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, Rob McNabb, said in an interview. He said that in the short term, the price Canadian ranchers receive for their beef could fall, as importers wait to see the results of the CFIA’s investigation.

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The first new case of mad cow disease comes on the heels of a banner year for Canadian beef producers.

The most recent market update from industry organization Canada Beef Inc. shows that domestic producers exported $1.77 billion worth of cattle and beef in the first 11 months in 2014, which was a 45% increase over the same period the previous year.

The wider agri-foods industry exported $46 billion worth of products in 2013, the most recent year for which Statistics Canada data is available.

“We have briefed our trading partners with respect to this event,” CFIA vice-president of policy and programs Paul Mayers said in a Friday afternoon conference call.

According to the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, roughly 72% of all Canadian beef is exported to the U.S., where retailers are required to label beef products with their country of origin. This labelling requirement has led to a dispute between the Canadian and American federal governments at the World Trade Organization.

University of Saskatchewan professor of veterinary microbiology Volker Gerdts, who is also the associate director of research for the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization, said the federal government passed new, stricter rules governing what ranchers could feed their cattle in 2007, as a result of the 2003 infection.

Mr. Gerdts added the Paris-based World Organization for Animal Health classifies Canada as a “controlled risk” country of origin for beef.

That classification means that up to 12 BSE cases can be identified in Canada per year before the organization reclassifies Canada as a riskier beef producer, which could result in key markets slapping Canadian ranchers with export bans.

The CFIA had been gearing up to apply for a better risk classification for Canadian beef this year, which could be in jeopardy as a result of this recent BSE case.

 

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