US cattle group attacks Canada BSE testing rate

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Bse, Bovine spongiform encephalopathy

The number of Canadian cattle being tested for BSE per month has
substantially decreased, claims a US cattle group demanding
restrictions on beef imports from Canada, writes Anthony
Fletcher.

"Reports by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) show that Canada tested 7,088 cattle for BSE during December 2004, while the average number tested per month for January, February and March totaled only 5,258 cattle per month - a 28 per cent drop,"​ said Leo McDonnell, R-CALF USA president and co-founder.

"At this slow rate of testing, even a relatively large BSE problem may remain hidden for many months or years."

R-CALF wants Canada to begin testing hundreds of thousands of cattle on an annual basis - rather than the tens of thousands Canada is proposing - as the only means by which Canada can conclude that its prevalence rate is not as high as those of countries considered to have a serious BSE problem.

"Until - and unless - Canada begins a statistically meaningful BSE surveillance programme, every country will lack crucial scientific data needed to assess the risk of accepting beef and cattle from Canada,"​ said R-CALF USA chief executive Bill Bullard.

However, the USDA, along with many beef processors in the US, are keen to increase beef trading with Canada. The US border was closed to live Canadian cattle in May 2003 after a single cow with bovine spongiform encephalopathy was discovered in Alberta, but many now believe that sufficient safeguards are in place to guarantee the safety of the beef supply.

Tentative steps have been taken towards relaxing restrictions. But earlier this year a federal judge in Montana ruled that the plans to reopen the border to young Canadian cattle were to be postponed, though the length of the delay was not clear.

District Judge Richard Cebull granted the request for a preliminary injunction brought by R-CALF that argued the reopening would expose their cattle - and US consumers - to mad-cow disease. The ruling was welcomed by R-CALF and several risk-assessment experts, who believe that Canada still lags behind the US in BSE testing, though it was heavily criticised by the USDA.

"Statistically, the detection sensitivity of a testing programme is driven by the number of cattle tested per month, not the size of the herd,"​ said nationally renowned disease risk-assessment expert Louis Anthony Cox of Cox Associates. "Canada would have to double its testing rate, then double it again, then double it yet a third time to reach parity with the US in the level of scrutiny being given to cattle to protect consumers and the cattle industry against BSE."

Bullard argues that as a result of these inadequate policies - along with multiple discoveries of BSE - it is likely that additional BSE-positive cattle exist in the Canadian herd but aren't being detected. Canada's decision to reduce BSE testing after the two most recent cases could indicate that adequate testing may not be forthcoming.

However the USDA did announce this month that Canada, Mexico and the United States have established a harmonised approach to BSE risk mitigation to more effectively address the risk in North America.The objective is to help normalise trade in ruminants and ruminant products within North America and to promote an international BSE strategy consistent with World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) guidelines.

BSE remains a sensitive issue for consumers, policy makers and the beef industry. The global beef industry's worst fear is a rerun of the BSE crisis that gripped the UK in the late 1990s. Domestic sales of beef products declined immediately by 40 per cent following reports of a possible link between BSE and new variant CJD - a human form of BSE - in 1996. Export markets were completely lost.

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