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BSE: Lessons from Canada

24.dec.03, Justin Kastner and Douglas Powell, Commentary from the Food Safety Network

U.S. food safety officials have been on the lookout for mad cow disease. Now
that they have finally found it, they should note how Canada managed a very
similar scenario just a few months ago.
A whisper of the words bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, or mad cow
disease) conjures up images of the United Kingdom's despairing bout with the
disease during the 1990s. But while USDA officials should be mindful
of BSE's devastating potential (which the U.K. story tells), they should focus
on the Canadian experience with BSE.
Canada's experience reveals the value of transparently showcasing to the
public a vigilant, proactive regulatory system, while acknowledging the
likelihood that the disease is most likely not limited to just one animal.
In Canada, this strategy has paid real dividends, engendering enough
consumer confidence to yield an actual increase in domestic beef
consumption. No other country with a BSE discovery has accomplished that.
Tuesday's announcement of the presumptive discovery of a case of BSE in the
U.S. will test whether the two North American giants can learn from
each other. Since the 1800s, agricultural trade and scientific cooperation have
been hallmarks of Canadian-American relations. Nineteenth-century tariff
wars, ongoing squabbles over agricultural subsidies and softwood lumber, and
last May's discovery of mad cow disease in western Canada have all tested
economic interdependence and scientific harmonization at the 49th parallel.
Yet the two countries have persisted as each other's most important trading
partner and, historically, the two nations have adopted scientifically
similar approaches to ensure the safety of the food supply. Today, Canada's
and the United States' economic partnership and scientific like-mindedness
are conspicuous in international fora, and hopefully, the two countries will
continue to mimic each other?s evidence-based approaches to food safety
As Canadian Food Inspection Agency officials did six months ago, USDA's Food
Safety and Inspection Service officials should focus on the real
question at hand: can the disease be controlled and contained?
Based on current information, the answer is yes, which should lend some
comfort to consumers and the international community.
Canada's and America's findings were both made courtesy of proactive,
vigilant surveillance systems. In the Washington state case, a veterinary
inspector followed routine procedures by singling out a sick animal and
requesting that it be tested for BSE. High-risk materials (including the
brain and spinal cord) were removed from the animal, and a series of tests
were begun. These will (presumptively) culminate in tomorrow's Christmas-Day
confirmation in the UK that the Washington state case is in fact
BSE. But even ahead of this confirmation, USDA officials went ahead and quarantined
the herd from which the diseased animal was sourced.
Meanwhile, other questions remain. Like Canada, the U.S. must now begin
an investigation into how the animal might have contracted the disease.
The BSE find, while reassuringly made before high-risk materials from the
infected cow made it into the food chain, begs several questions. The first
of these cascade from whether or not the animal was born in the U.S.. If
US-born and US-reared, how many other herd mates are infected?
BSE is a slowly progressing, fatal nervous disorder of adult cattle that
causes a characteristic staggering gait and is similar to a handful of rare,
neurological diseases that affect humans and other animals. While North
American regulators have detected and summarily dealt with BSE before (in
1993 and May 2003 in Canada), both Canada and the U.S. have not yet
experienced widespread BSE outbreaks like those seen in the U.K. This is a
tribute to skilled veterinarians and regulatory programs that, situated in
the context of elusive science, are cautious.
In the U.K., BSE took root via production practices that involved the
feeding to cattle protein from cattle infected with BSE. For years
regulators understood this connection (in veterinarian lingo, the
"ruminant-to-ruminant" feeding link), prompting the British to ban such feed
in 1989, yet they failed to enforce the rules on the books at least until
1996, when public health research demonstrated that the consumption of
BSE-infected beef was strongly linked to a new variant of the human disease
Creutzfelt-Jacob disease (vCJD).
In 1997, recognizing that the input of BSE--infected feed into cattle
production might spawn an outbreak of BSE, and following the suggestion of a link
between BSE and vCJD, the use of ruminant protein in ruminant
feed was banned in North America. Checks by CFIA and the U.S. Food and Drug
Administration ensure that compliance by feed mills is high.
But banning ruminant-to-ruminant feeding practices may not, in fact, be a
sure firewall for the spread of BSE. That is why, since 1990, both the U.S.
and Canada have banned cattle imports from several European countries, and
during the last few years has extended the ban to other countries.
USDA must explore, as CFIA did, the following questions: Where did the
animal originate? Were there, perhaps, lapses in feed manufacturing
procedures? Will other animals test positive? Indeed, the great unknown is
how many cattle are quietly harbouring the disease and potentially passing
it on to meat eaters. How are sickly animals being dealt with? Unlike the
Alberta BSE case, which was completely removed from the human food chain, muscle
meat from the Washington state cow was allowed forward for
futher processing. Should this practice be allowed, even though muscle meat
has been shown to be of neglig!ible BSE risk?
Publicly asking and answering these questions is where the Canadian
experience comes in. Dealing with these legitimate questions in a
transparent manner is an important extension of a vigilant regulatory
system. As CFIA opened their books to domestic and international watchdog
groups, they undertook to answer them. In doing so, they gained public
confidence; and despite international bans on Canadian beef, domestic demand
went up.
Like microbial foodborne illness, as surveillance activities increase, more
cases will be found, creating a paradox of headlines against a food safety
infrastructure that has never been stronger. Transparency, along with
demonstrable efforts that actions match words are the best way to enhance
consumer confidence.

A whisper of the words bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, or mad cow
disease) conjures up images of the United Kingdom's despairing bout with the
disease during the 1990s. But while USDA officials should be mindful
of BSE's devastating potential (which the U.K. story tells), they should focus
on the Canadian experience with BSE.

Justin Kastner is a research assistant professor in agricultural security at
Kansas State University. Douglas Powell is an associate professor and
scientific director of the Food Safety Network at the University of Guelph,
and the co-author of the 1997 book, Mad Cows and Mother's Milk.