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More mad cows




Commentary from the Food Safety Network (

Douglas Powell and Ben Chapman

In March, 1996, the Minister of Agriculture declared to the Canadian House of Commons there was no risk of mad cow disease to the Canadian cattle herd -- against the advice of his own staff veterinarians.

No risk is a risky phrase. There's always a risk.

The statement came shortly after U.K. Health Secretary Stephen Dorrell had informed the world that scientists had discovered a new variant of Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease (CJD) in 10 victims, and that they could not rule out a link with consumption of beef from cattle with bovine spongiform encephalapthy (BSE), also known as mad cow disease. BSE spread to 23 countries, inflicting at least 150 fatal cases of vCJD.

On May 20, 2003, Canadian officials announced a homegrown case of BSE, with industry and wishful-thinking politicians proclaiming, "It's only one cow."

In Jan. 2005, another two Canadian animals were confirmed with BSE. This time, officials said it was not unexpected to find more BSE with increased surveillance, but the three Canadian cases (plus an American animal that spent much of its life in Canada) were still within accepted international guidelines. The system was working as it was supposed to.

Earlier today, another Canadian cow was confirmed with BSE. This time, the, "additional diagnosis of BSE (was) not unexpected."

In 10 years, the Canadian spokesthingies have gone from no risk to it's only one cow to more cases are not unexpected.

But despite these lapses in effective communication, the threat of BSE in Canada and the U.S. remains quite low, and the control measures in place are largely successful.

However, such systems are only as good as the weakest link: great plans and programs are meaningless if they are not monitored and open to public scrutiny.

There are also some questions about the latest case. According to CFIA's chronology, samples of the suspect animal were sent to the Winnipeg lab for confirmatory testing between Jan. 17 and 18. Yet the results were not announced until Jan. 23, which is a long time for a 48-hour test.

Further, the latest animal was born in April 2000, several years after the 1997 introduction of a feed ban which was supposed to prevent spread of the disease by eliminating infected cattle parts from cattle feed.

CFIA and others contend that every country with BSE has found and continues to find a few cases born after the introduction of feed controls.

Does that mean that Canada is as bad as the rest of the world in enforcing feed bans?

While CFIA acknowledges that this latest BSE case supports the need for Canada to continue to move towards further enhancing the current feed ban, draft regulations to do just that have been stalled in the consultation phase since Dec. 2004.

The latest Canadian BSE case was reported just three days after Japan cut off imports of U.S. beef because of a violation of its safety rules. The product Japan found -- bone-in veal from a plant in New York -- is widely consumed by Americans and allowed under international trading rules, but, according to media accounts, Asian officials worry that bone presents a risk of mad cow disease.

On Saturday, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns called the contaminated shipment "an unacceptable failure," and dispatched extra inspectors to Japan and U.S. plants and ordered unannounced checks.

"It's a situation where very, very clearly our inspectors should have caught this," Johanns said. "And I'm going to do everything I can to make sure that that doesn't happen again."

The best-laid plans can be foiled by lax enforcement.

It's somewhat like those failed contestants on American or Canadian or Australian or whatever Idol. Pitting aspiring vocalists against the vision of what judges think teens will fall all over themselves to buy is an awesome idea. It's not the good singers that provide chills that makes it so compelling: it's the look on the face of someone who really thinks that they are the next Christina Aguilera or, ahem, Bryan Adams, and they find out that they're not.

Same with food safety policy. Canadian officials are forever speaking about our great science-based food safety system, and some even say that we have the safest food in the world. Just like the Idol contestants headed back to the karaoke bar, repeatedly saying we're good doesn't mean we actually are.

Douglas Powell is scientific director and Ben Chapman is a PhD student with the Food Safety Network at the University of Guelph.