A third case of mad cow disease in Canada has been confirmed, Canadian officials said Tuesday, bringing the total number of North American cases to four.
The fatal brain disease, formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), was detected in a nearly seven-year-old Alberta beef cow as part of the country's surveillance program. After initial tests in Alberta showed a potential case, the Canadian national veterinary lab in Winnipeg confirmed the result using far more precise and accurate tests. Final results were returned Tuesday.
"No part of the animal has entered the human food or animal feed systems," the Canadian Food Inspection Agency said in a statement.
The infected cow was born in March 1998, shortly after 1997 rules were enacted to prohibit the use of protein from cows and similar animals in cattle feed — a practice seen as a key source of the disease. However, Canadian officials said feed produced before the so-called "feed ban" went into effect was the most likely source of infection. Animals in previous cases were all born before the 1997 rules.
Officials said they had identified the farm where the infected cow came from, but did not release information about it.
This latest case comes less than two weeks after Canada's previous case was acknowledged. That case, in an eight-year-old Alberta dairy cow, was confirmed Jan. 2.
These cases emerged almost immediately after a long-awaited announcement by U.S. officials that they would reopen the border to trade in young live cattle and expand trade in beef.
In a statement Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said it would investigate the latest case, but did not address reports that it might roll back plans to reopen the border for additional trade, currently scheduled for March 7.
Meat products made from infected cattle have been identified as the cause of over 140 deaths worldwide from a human disease similar to mad cow.
The Canadian finds have prompted some U.S. ranchers to argue that the border is being reopened too hastily. R-CALF, a group of some 12,000 cattlemen, filed a lawsuit Monday against the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which eased the cross-border rules and coordinates all U.S. testing for the disease.
Those rules, according to R-CALF's lawsuit, "will expose U.S. consumers to increased risk of an invariably fatal disease," as well as the potential for more infected U.S. cattle and financial risks for cattlemen.
"This latest case clearly reinforces that we are correct, that this is a risky effort on the part of USDA," Bill Bullard, CEO of R-CALF, told MSNBC.com.
As such, the cases have highlighted an apparent rift in the industry.
While some cattlemen have expressed growing concern over the Canadian cases, major slaughterhouses and meat companies have pushed to open the border even further. "There should not be a question about the safety of meat products produced in Canada," Jim Hodges, president of the American Meat Institute Foundation, said Tuesday.
Large meat companies buy beef from both U.S. and Canadian farms and feedlots, and the institute recently sued the USDA to expand its trade decision and allow older cattle to cross the border. The new rules will allow only animals under 30 months, and the National Cattlemen's Beef Association hopes to at least temporarily prevent importation of older cattle.
"We think these animals over 30 months present a different level of risk, and we need to take a look at that," Jay Truitt, the association's senior lobbyist, told MSNBC.com.
Focus on feed rules
Feed rules on both sides of the border are getting scrutiny. The Food and Drug Administration, which regulates U.S. animal feed, has been criticized after it reneged on plans to tighten many loopholes last summer. Canadian rules — but not U.S. rules — close off some potentially worrisome loopholes, including the use of poultry litter and scraps of restaurant food in animal feed.
Yet, in a Jan. 5 letter, Sen. Kent Conrad, R-N.D., and Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., detailed numerous shortfalls in the Canadian feed rules, including a conclusion last month by Canadian regulators that testing was insufficient and that rules allowed "opportunities for prohibited proteins" to contaminate feed.
They cited a memo, first reported last month in the Vancouver Sun, in which a regulator said that 20 of 28 samples of vegetarian animal feed contained "undeclared animal materials."
Discoveries of suspect material, including muscle and bone tissue, also prompted the FDA to issue 15 "import alerts" against Canadian feed since Oct. 2003.
"Canada clearly has problems with their feed rule that they need to look at very carefully," said Michael Hansen, a Consumers Union food safety researcher. But Hansen added that loopholes remain on both sides of the border, and U.S. rules need to allow feed to be tested on farms as well as feed mills.
Truitt said current U.S. rules are adequate, and shouldn't necessarily mirror Canadian rules.
Tracking infected cows
Details from the newest case were not released, but an Alberta rancher was identified as the owner of the second infected cow found late last month. The rancher's farm was quarantined.
Canadian and U.S. officials have been tracking the cow's "birth cohort" — other cattle born on the same farm within a year of the infected cow. The USDA acknowledged at least one cow from the cohort was imported into the United States for slaughter, but hasn't announced where it ended up. The Canadians identified 38 animals tied to the Jan. 2 case, and located nine, which they planned to test.
The new Canadian system tested some 23,000 animals last year. U.S. testing, which was vastly expanded beginning last June, tested 176,468 cattle in 2004. Officials have set a goal of testing as many as 268,000 by the end of 2005, though they have focused mostly on animals considered at the highest risk for the disease.
Bullard said he found the latest finds "troubling from a statistical standpoint," and believes the disease could be as prevalent in Canada as in Great Britain, where over 180,000 cases have been found.
The first U.S. case of mad cow disease was detected in December 2003 in a Washington state dairy cow imported from Alberta. The animal's origin was a key issue for supporters of the ban on Canadian beef set after Canada found its first case in May 2003. But it also underscored to many cattle ranchers their industry's reliance on multinational operations.