BSE-Infected Cow Found in Alberta

DANNY ROSEHILL remembers well the Tuesday morning in September when he watched the terrorist attacks on New York City while the weekly sale at his cattle auction house in Olds, Alta., continued apace. "The towers were brought down, 3,000 people killed, and yet the sale went on," says Rosehill.

BSE-Infected Cow Found in Alberta

DANNY ROSEHILL remembers well the Tuesday morning in September when he watched the terrorist attacks on New York City while the weekly sale at his cattle auction house in Olds, Alta., continued apace. "The towers were brought down, 3,000 people killed, and yet the sale went on," says Rosehill. Fast forward to last Tuesday morning, when more than 1,000 cows were again up for grabs at the Olds Auction Mart. Shortly after bidding opened, word began to spread that a single cow in northern Alberta, already dead for nearly four months, had been identified as suffering from bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), better known as mad cow disease. Within minutes, the auction ground to a halt as nervous buyers withdrew their offers and disappointed producers retrieved their cattle. In short order, Rosehill learned the United States had shut its borders to Canadian beef, stock prices of multinational fast-food franchises had tumbled and the live cattle futures market had collapsed. "It's amazing," he says, "the repercussions from just one cow."

No arguing with that. By week's end, the search for clues into how a black Angus breeder cow became infected with the dreaded brain-wasting disease had forced 13 Alberta, Saskatchewan and B.C. farms into quarantine, with more expected to follow. All 150 head of cattle at the cow's last home, a farm in northwestern Alberta, were sent for slaughter so the animals' brains could be tested for BSE. The results, expected this week, may shed light on whether Canadian officials were dealing with an isolated incident - or a potentially devastating outbreak. In the meantime, a long list of countries, including Australia, Japan and South Korea, followed the U.S. lead by banning Canadian beef and live cattle. That dealt a body blow to Canada's $7.6 billion-a-year beef industry, as meat-packing plants slashed production and a growing backlog of export-ready cows cooled their hooves in feedlots.

Why all the fuss? Still fresh in the public mind are disturbing images from the 1990s of British cows twitching and staggering from the neural damage caused by BSE (in case anyone had forgotten, TV newscasts obligingly re-aired the pictures last week). Then there are about 130 confirmed cases of humans suffering from a new variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease - a horrifying illness that results in dementia, severe nerve damage and almost certain death. The most likely cause of CJD: consumption of foods made from certain BSE-infected cow parts.

Politicians and federal health officials were quick to insist that no such risk to humans existed in Canada as a result of last week's developments. The breeder cow, they noted, was effectively removed from the food chain on Jan. 31, after a provincial inspector at an Alberta abattoir noticed it looked underweight and deemed it to be suffering from pneumonia. The cow was declared unfit for consumption and killed, its brain sent away for testing. Still, the routine examination for BSE did not take place until May 16 - 15 weeks later. Federal Agriculture Minister Lyle Vanclief said the delay likely occurred because the diagnosis of pneumonia made the cow a low priority. However, some suggested the lag time was due, at least in part, to budget cuts and recent closures of provincial inspection labs. "Any system which takes over 3 ½ months to test an obviously diseased animal has some serious failings," said Alberta New Democrat leader Raj Pannu.

While the breeder cow had been removed from the food chain, officials could not say, with equal certainty, that the same was true for its offspring, some of which remained unaccounted for at week's end. Nor could they rule out the possibility that other animals had been infected with BSE. But even if some diseased cows had slipped through the cracks, experts on mad cow disease, such as the University of Toronto's Neil Cashman, said consumers had little to fear. BSE, he noted, is spread by abnormal proteins called prions, which concentrate in a cow's brains or spinal cord, parts of the animal Canadians are unlikely to eat.

Still, last week marked the second time in a decade that mad cow disease had shown up in Canada. The first case, in 1993, involved a single cow in a herd near Red Deer, Alta. It turned out that animal had been shipped from Britain. The infected cow and its herdmates were destroyed and the disease contained.

How and when the breeder cow became infected with BSE remained a mystery as of last week. In their search for answers, officials from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency pored over branding records, bills of sale and other farm documents, many of them stored in a haphazard manner. "Sometimes you have to sit in the kitchen and open the shoebox," observed Claude Lavigne, the agency's associate executive director of animal products. By week's end, the exhaustive investigation had narrowed the cow's birthplace to two possible locations, one in Saskatchewan and the other in Alberta. The animal had passed through several farm operations before ending up last August on a spread near Wanham, Alta.

Beef may be big business across Canada, but in Alberta it's an economic lifeline, second only in importance to the province's oil and gas industry. Of the $7.6 billion generated in cattle farm cash receipts last year, $5.9 billion came from Alberta. More than half of the $2.2 billion worth of beef and veal that Canada exports annually to the United States is Alberta-bred.

All the same, these are lean times for Alberta beef producers. Two years of prolonged drought have destroyed pasture land, sent feed prices skyrocketing and forced many ranchers to sell off their stock. But not everyone is willing to buckle under. Myron Pearman runs a cow/calf operation near Rimbey, Alta., along with his brother, Carey. In March, the Pearmans purchased 138 new cows, bringing their total herd to about 400. Then came the news of Alberta's mad breeder cow. "It was just such a shock," says Pearman. "You can adjust for weather and bugs, but this is a blindside you have no control over."

Ranchers, though, are inveterate optimists. Pearman expressed confidence that Canada's food safety inspectors would soon root out the source of the mad cow disease, leading to a lifting of the export bans. "I came home tonight and we ate hamburgers," he said. "Tomorrow, I'm heading to town, maybe to buy some cows. I have no fear of that."

Such grit and determination will come in handy in the days ahead. Lavigne has cautioned that fully unravelling Alberta's mad cow mystery could be "many days away, and maybe weeks. God knows." Until that happens, the export bans will almost certainly stay in place, costing the Canadian beef industry millions of dollars a day. Hardest hit in the short run are feedlot operators with fattened cows ready to be shipped out. If the borders remain closed for any length of time, those animals will have to be slaughtered and their meat sold at bargain prices - a boon for summer barbecuers, if no one else.

There are also concerns that, even if the latest incidence of mad cow disease is fully traced and eradicated, doubts about the safety of Canadian beef could linger in the minds of consumers and importing nations. "Yeah, that's always going to happen," says the Canada Beef Export Federation's Cam Daniels. "Maybe for the next six months or a year it will be talked about and be in the back of people's minds. But I think over time those perceptions will change."

A prolonged mad cow scare could also spook Alberta's $5-billion-a year tourist industry, perhaps doing for the mountain resort towns of Banff and Jasper what SARS has done to Toronto. "If it stays at just one mad cow, we should be fine," says Don Boynton, director of communications for Travel Alberta. "It depends on how this unfolds and how quickly the problem can be contained. That will certainly impact how the foreign media reports the situation here."

Not everyone in Alberta was lamenting the latest emergence of mad cow disease. In Edmonton, members of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals carried signs reading, "It's Mad to Eat Meat - Go Vegetarian," and distributed "emergency vegetarian starter kits" full of recipes and pictures of allegedly abused animals. For PETA, it promised to be the greatest publicity coup since the same organization recruited high-profile country crooner k.d. lang - the pride of Consort, Alta. - to declare that "meat stinks" in a series of notorious television commercials in the early 1990s. In a province where tucking into a big juicy steak is still considered by many as something of a birthright, the radical vegans seem unlikely to prevail. Then again, these are strange days in cattle country.

See also BEEF CATTLE FARMING.

Maclean's June 2, 2003