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Maybe Now’s the Time to Worry About the Return of Mad Cow

This is the first time that Canada has had two cows from the same farm infected with mad cow disease.
February 27, 2015, 11:00pm

​An investigation into how an Albertan cow recently contracted mad cow disease is intensifying after Canadian officials determined the cow came from the same farm as another cow that was found in 2010 to have also contracted the disease.

This is the first time that Canada has had two cows from the same farm infected with mad cow disease—also known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE)—officials said.

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This could be bad news for Canadian beef exporters since widespread international bans on importing Canadian beef could be disastrous for the industry. For non-farmers, the risk lies in ingesting infected beef and contracting a neurodegenerative disorder known as variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD).

Investigators from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), the agency responsible for upholding the bans on feed containing cow parts that carry BSE, also found that the recently infected cow was born in 2009. This increases the likelihood that the cow ingested food produced after Canada's bans on feed containing cow parts that carry the disease were strengthened in 2007, after a previous outbreak in 2003 crippled the country's beef export industry.

"Feed is a particular focus of our investigation, and continues to be," said Paul Mayers, CFIA vice president of policy and programs. "At this time, that investigation has not concluded and so we cannot point to any specific risk factor at this point in the investigation."

The investigation has also been widened to include 750 more animals based on the cow's age and birth location, Mayers said, and will likely grow further to include other cows that may have eaten the feed that made it sick.

Earlier this week, the governments of Taiwan, Peru, and Belarus, placed temporary bans on importing Canadian beef in the wake of the discovery of BSE in the Albertan cow. The Chinese government placed a temporary ban on imports this morning, officials confirmed during the conference.

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This is might be a bit of deja vu for Canadians who remember the last BSE outbreak in 2003. Other nations refused to import Canadian beef at that time, as well.

Still, CFIA representatives remained steadfast in their belief that Canadian beef is safe for consumption, and said they are working to assure trading partners in other nations that Canadian beef is fit for import.

There is still one important unknown in the case, however: the age of the feed ingested by the most recent cow has yet to be determined. Now that we know the cow was born after the 2007 feed bans were enforced, it is certainly possible that bad feed has made its way back into the Canadian food system—if it ever left. But it's also possible that the cow ate feed that had been in storage for several years, officials said.

"Our feed investigation is very comprehensive," said Harpreet S. Kochhar, executive director of the Animal Health Directorate at the CFIA. Other lines of inquiry for the CFIA include determining whether the cow was fed with feed not meant for cows and if cross contamination between feed occurred. It's worth noting, however, that the 2007 ban encompassed all animal feed, pet food, and fertilizer.

"It does put this question in the front: that we did have the 2007 enhanced feed ban," Kochhar continued. "We are also focusing on the line of inquiry which would say, 'Was there any residue of feed that was left over?' That will be a part of our investigation."