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Canada May Step Up Its Livestock Controls

Officials rethink meat processing rules amid 'mad cow' crisis, but detection is a challenge.

May 30, 2003|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

TORONTO — The cow was obviously sick. It was stumbling. It was "still alive," farmer Marwyn Peaster said. "It was just not getting up anymore." Still, the animal that started Canada's "mad cow" disease crisis was loaded on a truck and taken to a slaughterhouse in Alberta province.

There, an inspector, suspecting pneumonia, flagged the cow and sent it off for rendering as animal feed. Though stumbling and other characteristics of a "downed" cow can be hallmarks of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, only a small proportion of such cows are tested for BSE in Canada, a senior Canadian food inspection official said Thursday.

Last year, in fact, this country tested only about 3,300 of an estimated 55,000 cattle that were too sick or incapacitated to walk. An unknown number of such "downer," or nonambulatory, cows that show no overt signs of BSE -- which is not always apparent on visual inspection -- are forwarded through slaughterhouses to the human food supply, especially at less regulated provincial slaughterhouses, regulators say.

Tens of thousands, like Peaster's cow, are rendered into feed for chickens, pigs and horses, which are not thought to be susceptible to BSE. And no one knows, the mad cow investigation here is making increasingly clear, how much chicken feed is inadvertently fed back to cattle.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday May 31, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 65 words Type of Material: Correction
"Mad cow" disease -- Recent articles in Section A and the Business section have stated that variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans is caused by eating products contaminated with the agent that causes bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or "mad cow" disease. Although scientists believe that there is strong evidence that eating such products can cause a new variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, the link is not definitively established.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency this week ordered the slaughter of an estimated 60 cows from three British Columbia farms that had received feed manufactured from the BSE-infected cow, after investigators said they "could not conclusively rule out" the accidental distribution of the contaminated feed to cows on the farms.

All told, 10 Canadian feed mills received parts of the infected cow, and some of it was processed into dry dog food and chicken feed, authorities say.

Now, the cattle industry in Canada is losing an estimated $11 million a day under a ban on Canadian beef imports by the U.S. and six other nations. And so, in an effort to restore buyers' confidence, Canadian authorities say they will consider ramping up their BSE inspections, putting in place more exhaustive livestock tracking systems and reevaluating the use of potentially contaminated animal proteins in livestock feed.

"We are collectively committed to learning and improving our approaches to keep Canada's food and animal system at the forefront of the world," Agriculture Minister Lyle Vanclief told reporters Thursday.

With North America increasingly vigilant against the kind of mad cow crisis that devastated the British cattle industry in the 1980s and 1990s, the U.S. already has tripled its BSE inspections over the last two years and is considering stricter measures to protect against the possibility of BSE in "downer" cows.

In Canada, by contrast, inspectors order BSE testing on only a fraction of cattle rejected for human consumption, Carolyn Inch, national manager of disease control for the food inspection agency, said Thursday. But, she added, "we're going to try and change that and sample them all. It will take time, but not that much time, I think."

Canada, like the U.S., immediately tests all cows that show classic symptoms of a nervous system disease like BSE: staggering, rolling eyes, vibrating head. But Peaster's cow had none of those symptoms, and agriculture experts have long believed that if BSE is present in North American herds, it could well be present in a cow that doesn't exhibit classic symptoms but is merely lying down, thin and listless -- much like Peaster's cow and thousands of others that show up at slaughterhouses each year.

Many large supermarket chains and fast food outlets have policies against buying beef from such incapacitated cows, but agriculture experts say an unknown number make it into the food supply in Canada and the U.S. through secondary outlets.

"You've got dairymen out there, they don't have to worry about cleaning up their downers. They take them to the slaughterhouse, and though less and less slaughter plants want them -- your big plants just don't accept downers anymore -- you've got smaller plants that are getting to be a niche market of downers," said Temple Grandin, associate professor of animal science at Colorado State University.

"They sell to Joe's taco stands, Joe's Bar and Grill. They sell to the rubbish niche. There will always be certain restaurants that'll buy that stuff," Grandin said.

There is strong evidence that eating products contaminated with the agent that causes BSE may cause humans to develop a variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a disorder that can lead to paralysis and death.

In Canada, about 2% of cattle are slaughtered in abattoirs that are not federally licensed, do not export meat and are not required to have federal meat inspectors on hand. A cow like Peaster's might have cleared such a facility, British Columbia's health officer, Dr. Perry Kendall, said in an interview.

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