Oh Canada: Finding source of BSE ‘a needle in a haystack’

Canadian Agriculture Minister Gerry-what-Listeria-Ritz says figuring out how an Alberta cow was infected with BSE is like looking for a needle in a haystack.

ITALY-G8-G5-AGRICULTURE-FARMThe beef breeding cow was discovered last month on a farm near Edmonton and was born on a nearby farm.

Another cow born on the same farm in 2004 tested positive for bovine spongiform encephalopathy in 2010.

He says the feed system is also being checked to see if there’s any kind of “smoking gun.”

Ritz says a number of countries that have temporarily suspended imports of Canadian beef are being kept in the loop, but he points out they only account for about five per cent of Canada’s worldwide market.

Because trade is more important than safety.

So Ger, how effective is that ban on mammalian protein in ruminant feed? Got any proof?

Don’t worry, exports won’t be harmed: Another mad cow case in Canada

Gotta wonder just how effective Canada’s ban on mammalian protein in ruminant feed is, given the number of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) cases there have been over the past decade.

ITALY-G8-G5-AGRICULTURE-FARMWhen there’s a BSE case, or a foodborne illness outbreak like Listeria in the $5.5 billion a year Maple Leaf Foods, government agencies fall over themselves to assure the public – and trading partners – that everything is fine.

Would the Canadian economy sink were it not for the agricultural behemoths? Probably.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency says little more than a week passed from the time the most recent case of mad cow disease was first suspected to when it was confirmed and national trading partners were notified.

A timeline of the case at an Alberta farm has been released on the agency’s website.

The website says a private veterinarian took samples on February 4 at the undisclosed farm and submitted them to a provincial lab.

It says they were tested on February 6 and the lab recorded a “non-negative” test result.

The lab repeated the test the following day with the same finding and reported the case to the CFIA, where the agency conducted its own test in Lethbridge, Alta, to confirm the result.

The CFIA says it started gathering information on the animal’s herd on Tuesday, officially confirmed the case on Wednesday and posted the case to its website and notified Canada’s trading partners on Thursday.

Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz said Friday that the infected animal was not born on the farm where it was discovered.

Ritz also said the discovery won’t affect Canada’s international beef trade because it won’t change the county’s controlled BSE risk status from the World Organization for Animal Health. He said Canada has stayed below international protocols that allow for up to a dozen BSE cases a year.

Irealand? Really?Nearly two decades after ban, Irish beef is back in America

Irish beef was served in New York City for the first time in 17 years on Monday night, after a ban in 1998 saw all European beef restricted from entry into America.

ireland.beef.us.feb.15At a swanky event in Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Ireland’s agriculture minister, Simon Coveney, presented a sample of his nation’s beef to a crowd of chefs and food writers, and presented the case for Irish beef filling the huge American demand for red meat.

“The average American eats twice the volume of beef per head to the average European. So you take your beef very seriously,” Coveney said.

“If we are to be serious players in this market, we need to prove to you that we take our beef seriously,” he continued. “And we do.”

Monday’s event was held at Daniel, French chef Daniel Boulud’s two-Michelin-starred restaurant, which prepared a series of dishes with Coveney’s beef as a demonstration of its flavour.

“It does taste a little bit different to US beef,” Coveney told the crowd. Irish cattle are grass-fed, the minister said, and happily for Ireland “the fastest growing segment in the beef market in the US is actually the green beef, or grass-fed”.

The Irish beef last served in the US would be old enough to drive by now, had it the necessary appendages and wherewithal. The US imposed a Europe-wide ban on all beef on 1 January 1998, at the height of the BSE, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (aka “mad cow disease”) crisis.

Meanwhile, Taiwan’s Economy Minister John Deng (鄧振中) said Wednesday that Taiwan may ease restrictions on imports of American beef amid reports that it will allow in six kinds of beef parts to make it easier to join the U.S.-led Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade bloc.

Deng, who is in Washington, D.C., for a visit, told a CNA reporter in Taipei by phone that the six types of beef under consideration — bone marrow, blood vessels, head meat, cheek meat, weasand and tallow — are not internal organs and therefore not banned by law.

But businessmen have not been willing to import these beef parts for fear of violating the law because the cuts have not been defined and classified clearly enough under the law, he said.

Deng stressed that the government will not open Taiwan to beef internal organs from the U.S. at the expense of public health or in contravention of laws passed by the Legislature.

Norway finds ‘probable’ case of mad cow disease

A second positive test for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) on a 15-year-old cow reinforced suspicions that it had mad cow disease, the Norwegian Veterinary Institute said.

mad.cows.mother's.milk“We have a likely and strong suspicion of a possible variant of BSE,” Bjørn Røthe Knudtsen of the Food and Safety Authority told public broadcaster NRK.

The authorities however said there was a distinction between the type of BSE caused by cows eating meat-based feed — banned in Europe since 2001 after the British epidemic — and an atypical version which has sporadically appeared in older cows in several European countries in recent years.

A definitive diagnosis can only be made by a European reference laboratory in Britain.

“We take this seriously and we are handling it as if our suspicion were confirmed,” Food and Safety Authority official Solfrid Aamdal said in a statement.

Confirmed variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD) case in Texas

Laboratory tests have confirmed a diagnosis of variant CJD (a fatal brain disorder) in a patient who recently died in Texas. The confirmation was made when laboratory results from an autopsy of the patient’s brain tested positive for variant CJD.

mad.cows.mother's.milkFirst described in 1996 in the United Kingdom, variant CJD is a rare, degenerative, fatal brain disorder in humans. It is believed to be caused by consumption of products from cows with the disease bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, or mad cow disease).

Worldwide, more than 220 variant CJD patients have been reported, with a majority of them in the United Kingdom (177 cases) and France (27 cases). This case is the fourth to be reported in the United States. In each of the three previous cases, infection likely occurred outside the United States, including the United Kingdom (2 cases) and Saudi Arabia (1 case). The history of this fourth patient, including extensive travel to Europe and the Middle East, supports the likelihood that infection occurred outside the United States.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control assisted the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS)’s investigation of this case and will continue to help confirm further details of the patient’s history, including the potential source of infection.

A classic form of CJD, which is not caused by the BSE agent, occurs worldwide, including in the United States. Annually, for every 1 million people in the United States, 1 to 2 develops classic CJD. 

Mad cow disease cover-up? Mum exposed toxic beef conspiracy after son died in agony

During his final lucid moments Andrew Black looked up at his mother with violet eyes and begged her: “Find out who did this to me.”

Three years earlier, Andrew was a ­promising radio and TV producer, but by the time he died in his mother’s arms he was bedbound, blind and unable to remember anything before his illness.

mad.cows.mother's.milkAndrew would this week have celebrated his 30th birthday.

Instead he was killed by vCJD – the human form of mad cow disease BSE – when he was just 24 years old.

Mum Christine Lord vowed to honour her son’s dying wish, channelling her grief into a five-year investigation to uncover what the Government knew about BSE and when.

Her findings exposing an apparent cover up are published this week in her book, Who Killed My Son?

Christine says: “Watching Andrew die was the worst pain I have ever experienced in my life and it never goes away. It will be with me to the end of my days.

“You don’t get over losing a child to something as horrendous as that.

Documents showed the ­Government was warned to cull cattle as early as 1988 amid fears BSE could spread to and kill humans.

Meanwhile sources, many of whom were too scared to speak out publicly, told ­Christine infected cattle were smuggled into abattoirs at night.

And scientists in the know began boycotting beef during the late 1980s – even though the Government was still telling the public it was safe to eat.

One abattoir worker revealed infected cattle were delivered late at night to be turned into mechanically recovered meat which made its way into all kinds of food.

“One time they even had dead animals arriving in yellow sacks with radioactive signs on them,” says Christine.

Yet fears about the spread of BSE and the threat to humans emerged years before the public was warned.

Christine found official documents on BSE dating back to 1986, which she gave to the gummer.burger.kidDaily Mirror.

They are marked “confidential” as investigators ­recommended “playing it low key.”

Experts warned the Government there was “a real possibility that doing nothing could prove extremely costly”.

Yet ­officials were reluctant to cull cattle to contain the disease because of the cost.

The then Minister of Agriculture John Gummer even appeared on TV in 1990 feeding a beefburger to his daughter.

It was only in 1996 that the Government finally confirmed the risk to humans – after victims were already struck down.

Alberta’s cattle industry sort of recovers a decade after mad cow outbreak

On March 20, 1996, British Health Secretary Stephen Dorrell rose in the House to inform colleagues that scientists had discovered a new variant of Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease (CJD) in 10 victims, and that they could not rule out mad.cows.mother's.milka link with consumption of beef from cattle with bovine spongiform encephalapthy (BSE), also known as mad cow disease.

Overnight, the British beef market collapsed and politicians quickly learned how to enunciate BSE and CJD. Within days, the European Union banned exports of British beef; consumption of beef fell throughout Europe, especially in France and Germany, and in Japan, where suspicion of foreign food runs high. The triumvirate of uncertain science, risk and politics was played out in media headlines.

To refer to the events of 1996 as the BSE crisis is a misnomer, just as scientists are quick to point out that mad cow disease should more appropriately be called sad cow disease or unco-ordinated cow disease.  Rather, the announcement of March 20, 1996 was the culmination of 15 years of mismanagement, political bravado and a gross underestimation of the public’s capacity to deal with risk.  More important than any of the several lessons to be drawn from the BSE fiasco is this: the risk of no-risk messages.  For 10 years the British government and leading scientific advisors insisted there was no risk — or that the risk was so infintesimly small that it could be said there was no risk — of BSE leading to a similar malady in humans, CJD, even in the face of contradictory evidence.  The no-risk message contributed to the devastating economic and social effects on Britons, a nation of madison.men.cowbeefeaters, the slaughter of over 1 million British cattle, and a decrease in global consumption of beef, especially in Japan, at a cost of billions of dollars.

The Canadian Minister of Agriculture was quite adamant there was no risk of BSE developing in Canada.

In July 1996, Dr Norman Willis, Director General, Animal and Plant Health, Agriculture and Agrifood Canada, told the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association’s annual convention that “Actions were taken out of sheer paranoia, with people significantly hyped by the media.  We took actions that went way beyond ones that were scientifically  justified. … We wouldn’t have political interference.  We wouldn’t  have non-science factors influence the actions we took.  BSE blew that all away. … Canada and other trading countries couldn’t hold with science-based  decisions.  There was just too much at stake by way of trade.’’

Canada’s initial dragging to the grown-up’s table of BSE risk management, and apparent lax enforcement of feed regulations for years afterwards led to the inevitable: On May 20, 2003, Canada announced its first home-grown case of BSE.

The eight-year old cow from Alberta had been condemned at slaughter, was sent for rendering and did not enter the food chain.

The first few chapters of the story about the discovery of BSE in Canada were positive.

BSE was bound to show up eventually and the surveillance system set up in 1992 sorta worked. The inspector who pulled a sickly looking eight-year-old cow from the slaughter line prevented it from entering the food chain.

The line in Canada was, this is not the UK, and I was on TV at 5 a.m. the next morning, saying the U.K., had some 186,000 cattle test positive and millions preemptively slaughtered. The significant question was, will Canadian numbers of BSE-positives remain in the dozens or the tens-of-thousands (or something like that).

And yes, producers, processors and government should have been fully aware of the risk rather than act stunned when it happened.

Ten years on, with the perspective that time often offers, my statements seem accurate but naïve.

Canada has since reported 18 cases of BSE, and, just like other aspects of food safety, those in charge talk a good line, but do they know what really bbq_bse_cross_contaminationhappens on farms (or anywhere) day-in, day-out.

And are they interested? Because being interested costs money.

Ian Gray of the Edmonton Journal wrote a 10-year-retrospective piece on the first homegrown BSE case today, beginning with:

In January 2003, Marwyn Peaster’s cow fell down.

The six-year-old Black Angus was one of a small herd Peaster had bought the year before for his grain farm and feedlot near Wanham, in Alberta’s Peace Country.

Believing the cow had pneumonia, Peaster made the fateful decision to send it to a local abattoir instead of calling for a veterinarian or disposing of it on his own property. The vet at the slaughterhouse went by the book and condemned the “downer” cow, so there’d be no chance it could be used for human consumption.

The carcass then went to a rendering plant, but the head was sent to a provincial laboratory in Edmonton for testing. As there was no perceived urgency, there it sat, until May 16, 2003.

Three and a half months after it was shipped, the head was finally tested at the provincial lab and, to the disbelief and horror of everyone involved, registered positive for BSE. The results were confirmed by federal and international laboratories and were announced to the public on May 20.

As of May 1, 2013, vCJD had killed 237 people worldwide.

The attack on Peaster  reached its peak that September with the now infamous remark by then-premier Ralph Klein that “any self-respecting rancher would have shot, shovelled and shut up, but he (Peaster) didn’t do that.”

Peaster has since moved back to the U.S. and is living in the farming community of Ontario, Oregon, where he has a small trucking company. True to form, he has no desire to comment on the 10th anniversary of the discovery of BSE in Canada, in which he was a key, if unwilling, player.

Mad cow no longer dominates the food safety headlines, and that’s good. The potential is always there, and requires good risk management, but a lot more people get sick from lots of other things associated with beef (although vCJD is a terrible way to die).

As the elementary school year wound down in June, 2003, in Ontario, Canada, 
the school three of my four daughters attended had a barbeque for students, staff 
and parents. 
The earlier discovery of Canada’s first domestic case of bovine spongiform 
encephalopathy which received 
extensive media coverage, was of concern to some parents and school
 officials, so a note was sent home to parents, assuring them that the
 hamburgers and hot dogs to be consumed came from a supplier of so-called
 natural, beef and was therefore safe from BSE.

At this particular BBQ, several of the well-meaning volunteer cooks were
 observed to handle the raw, natural hamburger patties with tongs that were
 then used to place re-heated wieners into hot dog buns, possibly
 cross-contaminating the wieners with any number of pathogenic microorganisms
HappyCow[1]such as E. coli O157:H7, salmonella or listeria, and subsequently served to
 parents and children.

About the same time, a bunch of industry folks hosted a BBQ on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, to demonstrate the safety of Canadian beef to politicos.

I watched the servers cook burgers, not use thermometers, and cross-contaminate everything in sight.

I asked, where is the hamburger form?

Don’t worry, it’s not from Alberta, no mad cow here.

Are these pre-cooked?

Nah, they’ve been sitting in the (non-refrigerated) truck for a few hours.

I always wondered if anyone got sick after that feast.

Afternoon with Bert

It was an all-Ontario gabfest yesterday as Chapman and I and our kids had the pleasure of lunching with Dr. Bert Mitchell (Ontario Veterinary College, ’64), and then visiting with his wife Linda at their home in Sarasota, Florida, yesterday.

Among other achievements, Bert was Director of the Bureau of Veterinary Drugs at Health Canada from 1982-1988, and an associate director at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Veterinary Medicine from 1988-2001.

We shared stories, spoiled the kids, and deeply enjoyed the company. You’ll notice from the pic that Bert is the fittest of us three.

Canadian farmers say they are misunderstood; market the fab food safety instead

This should make everyone feel all warm and fuzzy about Canadian farmers: according to a new poll (which is nonsensical anyway) Canadian producers think governments overreact to food safety incidences and overburden them with rules to prevent the spread of diseases on their farms.

Sarah Schmidt of Postmedia News reports that a summary of the focus groups led by Ekos Research Associates Inc. on behalf of Agriculture Canada said,

"Those who were being most affected by these measures felt that governments and retail industry giants had overreacted in the face of mad cow and other food safety incidences, as well as bowing to pressure from the United States and other countries."

This from the country – that would be Canada — that initially resisted the ruminant protein in ruminant feed ban in 1996, had lousy enforcement of said ban, leading to 15 or so cases of bovine spongiform encephalopathy over the past decade, and was so delusional about the potential for listeria in cold cuts that it created an outbreak climate culminating in 22 deaths in 2008.

Further, "consumers do not have sufficient basic information about agricultural products. And if they did, they would be more likely to buy Canadian and to buy products grown locally.”

I get that other countries can cut corners and flood the market, and labeling is confusing, but stop whining. Tell retailers about your fabulous food safety programs and standards. Market your Canadian product and back it up with food safety data, not some nostalgic allegiance to maple syrup and beavertails.

Mad cows and Canada – happy anniversary

Bad things seem to happen around the Victoria Day long weekend in Canada, known up there as May 2-4, because beer is sold in cases of 24 bottles, and Queen Victoria’s birthday was actually on May 24, 1819, although the long weekend in May to celebrate the start of summer – when youngsters insist on camping and it’s freezing and wet – falls on the Monday either on or before May 24.

Memorial Day in the U.S. is the last Monday in May.

On May 20, 2003, Canadian officials reported that a single case of BSE was diagnosed in Alberta. The eight-year old cow had been condemned at slaughter, was sent for rendering and did not enter the food chain. Although an isolated case, Canada was no longer free of homegrown Mad Cow Disease.

Mad Cow Disease or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) is a chronic degenerative illness that affects the central nervous system of cattle. It is part of a family of rare diseases whose different forms affect different species of animals.

As the elementary school year wound down in June, 2003, in Ontario, Canada, the school three of my daughters attended had a barbeque for students, staff and parents.

The earlier discovery of BSE in Canada was of concern to some parents and school officials, so a note was sent home to parents, assuring them that the hamburgers and hot dogs to be consumed came from a supplier of so-called natural, beef and was therefore safe from BSE.

Leaving aside the scientific validity of such a statement (it’s not), the concerns about a potentially catastrophic, poorly understood risk, while completely valid, can also mask the concerns, biases and threats presented by less-exotic food-related risks.

At this particular BBQ, several of the well-meaning volunteer cooks were observed to handle the raw, natural hamburger patties with tongs that were then used to place re-heated wieners into hot dog buns, possibly cross-contaminating the wieners with any number of pathogenic microorganisms such as E. coli O157:H7, salmonella or listeria, and subsequently served to parents and children.

In terms of food safety, the observed practices represented a far greater risk; sure, mad cow disease, with all its unknowns, is bad, but with all the attention being paid to the hypothetical risks associated with BSE and genetically-engineered foods, many of the consumers whose confidence is vital to the food business are being distracted from the basics.

The efforts exerted by farmers, processors, retailers and consumers to ensure safe food are greater than ever. Yet the public discourse is increasingly focused on hypothetical food-related risks, which makes great barroom chatter, but does little to alleviate the suffering like that experienced by the 56 high school seniors in Ontario stricken around the same time with E. coli O157:H7 and were more rightly more concerned about future plans and making an impression on their date.

Oh, and unlike every other country that has discovered BSE, consumption of beef actually increased. While price discounts, advertising, and promotional statements from various social actors about the safety of Canadian beef probably contributed to the sales increase, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency was completely transparent, publicly showcasing — in the form of daily press conferences lead by Canada’s chief veterinarian, Dr. Brian Evans — a vigilant, proactive regulatory system, while acknowledging the likelihood that the disease was not limited to just one animal. In essence, Dr. Evans and his team provided daily updates that said, this is what we know, this is what we don’t know, and this is what we’re doing to find out more. And when we find out more, you will hear it from us first. Transparency, along with efforts to demonstrable that actions match words, is the best way to enhance consumer confidence.

May 20, 2003, was also the day Justin Kastner successfully defended his PhD under my supervision at the University of Guelph. Kastner got on faculty at Kansas State, arranged for me to visit in fall 2005, I met a girl, got a job offer, and am still in Kansas. That wasn’t a bad thing. I will write about other bad Victoria Day stuff tomorrow.