Mad cow's origin heats up border debate

It's official. The cow infected with mad cow disease, and discovered in Washington last month, did indeed begin its life in Canada.

“We now have DNA evidence that allows us to verify with a high degree of certainty that the BSE positive cow found in the state of Washington originated from a dairy farm in Alberta, Canada. This DNA evidence is based on a comparison of DNA from the brain of the positive cow with the DNA from the semen of her sire, as determined by records on the farm in Alberta,” Ron DeHaven, chief veterinary officer for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said at a Jan. 6 press conference.

The announcement comes one day after the deadline passed for public comment on the issue of reopening the border to Canadian live cattle. The proposed USDA rule announced Oct. 31, 2003, would reopen the border between the two countries, which was essentially shut down to livestock May 20, 2003 when the first case of BSE was discovered in Canada. USDA's proposed rule would also have amended the agency's bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) regulations to establish a new “minimal risk” category for those regions in which an animal has been diagnosed with BSE, also known as “mad cow disease.” Regions allowed under the rule would then be allowed to once again import certain low-risk livestock and livestock products into the United States.

Officials on both sides of the United States-Canadian border have insisted that bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, is a North American issue, not a U.S. issue or a Canadian issue.

“It's a North American issue, and has been, continues to be, and really became a North American issue on May 20th with the finding of the first North American native-born case. We do know that while we now have evidence to strongly suggest that the positive animal was born in Canada, we also know that there were a number of animals that moved into the United States from this herd that we need to determine exactly where they are at this point, because that clearly is a relevant and an important piece of the overall investigation,” says DeHaven.

While admitting it's not a “shocking discovery,” Canada's chief veterinarian officers says, the confirmation that the mad cow case originated in Canada “certainly does provide some disappointment to the industry, which will again psychologically bear that aspect.”

Brian Evans, the chief veterinary officer with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, says, “We recognize that there will always be a psychological impact of reporting the second case. In North America we were exposed through importations of cattle from the United Kingdom back in the decade of the 1980s, and from that perspective and with the result of our previous investigation, we have always accepted the reality that a small number of additional cases could not be ruled out over the next 18-month period.”

He's quick to add, however, that the finding of an additional case, given the size of Canada's population, is still well below the threshold to be considered a minimal risk country.

USDA officials also continue to insist that the surveillance, prevention and control measures implemented by Canada are sufficient to be included in the minimal risk category. However, those same officials are now saying they will delay any action on the border issue until the investigation into the most recent case of mad cow disease is completed.

“We'll make that decision subsequent to completing this epidemiological investigation, and take all of that relevant information into account when we decide on how to proceed with the proposed rule,” says DeHaven. “The two markets between the U.S. and Canada are highly integrated, and the firewalls and safeguards have been in place both in the United States and Canada. All of those things will be taken into consideration as well.”

DeHaven adds, “Despite where this cow might have originated, U.S. beef remains safe. We have made some adjustments and further enhancements to that system based on this situation, but at the end of the day we had a feed ban in place that would preclude the transfer of this disease from animal to animal. As was the case with this particular positive cow, those tissues that represented a risk to the public did not go into the food chain. And the announcement by the Secretary that those tissues will now be excluded from all animals slaughtered over 30 months of age would just confirm that the beef has been safe, continues to be safe, whether or not this cow originated from Canada or not.”

Evans says, “Aggressive measures have been in place in both countries predating the detection of BSE. With those measures in place we have the firewalls that all international standard-setting organizations would recommend we have in place to protect the public interest, as well as to ensure that there is no further dissemination of BSE through the feed system. The reality in the North American context is that people should not be making any false assumptions that the circumstances which eventually led to significant issues within Europe have been reproduced in North America. That is certainly not the case, and that was certainly part of the findings of the international review team that reviewed the circumstance in Canada.”

Some cattle producers disagree. In written comments to USDA, cow-calf producer Joel Franz of Burlington, Colo., says, “With the recent discovery of a BSE positive cow of Canadian origin here in the US, we can hardly consider Canada a “minimal BSE risk country.”

“As a producer and a consumer, I can't stress enough the importance of Country of Origin Labeling. We have trading partners that want the meat we send to them to be labeled as a “born and raised” US product. U.S. consumers deserve the same opportunity as Japan and Korea — the opportunity to choose U.S. beef if they so desire. This is one of the reasons I believe the border should remain closed at least until COOL is implemented,” he says. “I believe Canada now has two cases of BSE. It is just most unfortunate that the second case was found in Washington State. For these reasons I believe the opening of the border should be delayed until all facts are known and our export and domestic customers are comfortable with what we are doing.”

“Mad Cow Disease,” or BSE, is a progressive neurological disease among cattle that is always fatal. It belongs to a family of diseases known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, which also includes Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, which is believed to be caused by eating neural tissue, such as brain and spinal cord, from BSE affected cattle.

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