It's time for a reality check on the BSE case

It's time for a reality check on the BSE case
Will Verboven - 9, 2003

The first painful reality is that the single BSE case will cost the Canadian economy $1 billion. Even more painful, beleaguered taxpayers will be on the hook for hundreds of millions in compensation to the cattle and beef industry.

The second obvious reality was that at no time was the single case of BSE a threat to human health even in theory. That alone makes the first reality absolutely outrageous.

More reality checks:

* Some media continues to proclaim that of 3.4 million cattle slaughtered in Canada only 3,300 were tested for BSE. It sounds shocking, but it is quite misleading.

The reality is that of the 3.4 million cattle slaughtered; 2.8 million were under 2 years of age and are not susceptible to BSE. Tests have proven that the disease manifests itself only in older cattle.

The more honest figure is 3,300 tests were done on 600,000 head of older cattle that could be susceptible to BSE. Certainly a less sensational figure.

The tests were mostly done on older cattle showing some sign of debilitation or sickness - that's how the single BSE case was discovered. It should be noted that test numbers and criteria meet an internationally accepted formula and exceeded the American test number formula.

* Insinuations were made that the three month delay between the slaughtering of the cow and the BSE diagnosis was somehow suspicious or incompetent.

The reality is that with the BSE discovery, the monitoring and laboratory testing system proved that it works. Even if the diagnosis had been made within 48 hours, the only difference would have been that the BSE story would have occurred three months earlier.

An earlier diagnosis would certainly have been more fortunate from a publicity perspective - the BSE incident would have been overshadowed by extensive news from the Iraq war.

* The US border was shut to protect American consumers and the US cattle herd from BSE.

The reality is neither needed such protection. Almost all beef exported to the US for consumption are muscle cuts from animals under 24 months of age. Virtually all live cattle exported to the US are under 24 months of age. In neither case is BSE an infectious concern as BSE only affects animals over 30 months of age. Selective import restrictions would have been adequate - but less politically acceptable to US politicians. In comparison borders are never closed to outbreaks of E.coli and salmonella, infectious foodborne diseases that actually sicken and kill people.

* Dog food that allegedly contained parts of the rendered BSE cow was being sent back by importers to the manufacturer.

The reality is that dogs have never been known to be susceptible to BSE or any other related TSE disease. It's an idiotic exercise that only adds to the absurdity of the reaction to the BSE case.

* The US border was shut to all ruminants including sheep and elk. Apparently the USDA is under the impression that BSE can be carried by other ruminants.

The reality is that the only interspecies transfer of BSE occurred when BSE infected material was injected directly into the brains of sheep under experimental laboratory conditions. This is a practice that is unlikely to happen in real life.

* Allegations were made that the BSE case could be connected to the CWD outbreaks in elk.

The reality is that no BSE/CWD species crossover has ever been found or proven. If such an occurrence was possible, it should have developed in areas of the USA where CWD is epidemic. That spurious CWD linkage is being shamelessly promoted by opponents of elk game farms.

* The BSE case was the result of the cow eating contaminated feed. Therefore there must be more BSE cases going undetected.

The reality is that there is no proof that the cow ate any contaminated feed. Rendered animal proteins are expensive feed ingredients and were never extensively used in low-cost beef cattle rations - even prior to the ruminant ban in 1996.

There is also no conclusive proof that eating contaminated feed will automatically cause BSE in all cattle. The British and European experience with BSE has shown that isolated cases do occur within a herd of cattle all eating the same feed.

There is intriguing evidence from the UK that organophosphates (used in some pesticides) could play a role in triggering BSE in cattle. Products containing organophosphates are commonly used to control parasites (eg warbles) on beef cattle in Canada.

Some realities that the government and the cattle industry need to face:

* All surveillance for important food animal diseases needs to be standardized across Canada. At present, livestock disease monitoring (including BSE) is not carried out consistently across the country.

* All animal processing facilities in Canada need to come under common health standards and a single inspection agency. The present system is a conglomeration of federal and provincial regulations with differing standards - sometimes none.

* Prohibit feedmills that use animal renderings from producing feed for ruminant animal consumption. The reality is - cross contamination mistakes happen.

* Prohibit poultry and hog farms using feed with rendered ingredients from having any ruminants on the property. Permit only licensed hog and poultry farms to buy feed that contains animal renderings.

* The Federal government needs to thoroughly research any connection between organophosphate use and BSE in cattle. The role of copper and selenium also needs to be investigated. The circumstantial evidence needs to be objectively reviewed. There are too many mysteries surrounding the origin of BSE. Every possibility needs to be better investigated, not just those accepted by the research establishment.

* If no cause can be found for the BSE infection and a spontaneous occurrence is too theoretical, then perhaps the testing process needs to be better examined for a possible mistaken diagnosis.

Apparently there was no third-party control test done to confirm the BSE diagnosis by the British reference lab. Mistakes do happen.

And finally a much more needed and important reality for the consuming public and food safety:

* Require all meat coming out of any processing facility or imported into Canada to be irradiated (a non-radioactive cold pasteurization electronic beam process) to destroy pathogens such as E.coli and salmonella. That step alone would save more actual lives and real sickness from food poisoning in one month, than all of the people ever affected by BSE/vCJD.

However, don't expect any action on that reality any time soon, it has little interest from media and governments who would rather look for BSE devils under every bed.