Canada nears return to pre-2003 BSE status


World animal health organization to vote in May on negligible risk application, but scientific committee signals approval

Canada is closer to reaching negligible risk status for bovine spongiform encephalopathy, the illness that wreaked havoc in the cattle industry beginning in 2003 and still has repercussions today.

If that status is achieved, it could lead to greater beef trade opportunities to countries that continue to restrict imports based on Canada’s BSE history.

The scientific committee of the World Organization for Animal Health indicated last week that Canada’s application for a change in BSE status, from controlled risk to negligible risk, fulfils the needed requirements. Canada was designated as a controlled risk country for BSE in 2007.

OIE delegates are scheduled to vote on the matter at a general session at the end of May.

Eighteen years after the first BSE case was found, Canada may find its way back to its pre-2003 status when BSE was a little known or understood disease. All told, 20 animals were confirmed with BSE, 19 in Canada and one Canadian animal in the United States.

The last case of BSE in Canada was confirmed in 2015, in a cow born in 2009. To qualify for the new status, no cases can have occurred in animals born within the last 11 years. It also requires countries to identify, track and prevent infected animals and their cohorts from entering the food chain.

Negligible risk status could secure and improve access to export markets that were closed to Canadian beef or otherwise restricted certain types.

However, that status is not assured until the OIE votes.

“The recommendation by the OIE’s scientific commission to grant Canada the negligible status for BSE risk is an important first step,” said Canadian Cattlemen’s Association president Bob Lowe. “CCA respects the OIE review process and will await the final determination in May.”

OIE member countries have 60 days to request BSE information from Canada.

Federal agriculture minister Marie-Claude Bibeau announced the recommendation last week, calling it “an important step to being recognized as negligible risk for BSE. Although we still need to await the final vote, I am optimistic that this will soon allow them to expand their markets for cattle and beef exports to the U.S. and other foreign markets,” she said.

Safeguards against BSE caused major changes in Canadian cattle slaughter that remain in effect.

The proteins at the heart of the illness are concentrated in certain parts of the animal, requiring removal and disposal of various body parts, called specified risk material (SRM) in cattle 30 months or older. It also requires removal of the distal ileum, a portion of the small intestine, in cattle of all ages.

On average, that means removing and discarding more than 52 kilograms of material from older animals. In contrast, the United States is only required to remove about one kilogram of SRM to meet its obligations regarding the disease.

The Canadian requirement to remove SRM is considered a major impediment to improved slaughter capacity that could be achieved by developing small and medium-sized processors, according to CCA executive vice-president Dennis Laycraft.

However, a change in Canada’s BSE status to negligible risk would not remove the SRM removal requirement. For that to happen, the industry and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency would have to complete a thorough analysis of the process and the risk of a change, Laycraft said.

“We would have to prepare modelling so that as we look at changes to SRM policies, that we can do it and still maintain highly effective controls against any risk of BSE,” he said.

BSE also forced changes in feed regulations that affected all animal feeds, pet food and fertilizers. Traceability of cattle movement also became a requirement.

The OIE has 182 permanent delegates, including one from Canada, Dr. Jaspinder Komal of the CFIA.

Canada is one of six countries that are still deemed to have controlled risk of BSE. The other countries are Chinese Taipei, Ecuador, France, Greece and Ireland.

Many countries have risk status that the OIE deems unknown, while there are 50 on the list of countries with negligible risk. They include the major beef producing nations of Australia, the United States and Brazil.