The discovery of a case of mad cow disease in northern Alberta is unlikely to harm Canada's beef export industry, officials say. 

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency confirmed on Friday that a beef cow in the province tested positive for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), also known as mad cow disease.

A statement from the CFIA said no part of the cow had reached the human food or animal feed systems.

Dennis Laycraft, the executive vice-president of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, said such an isolated case should have little impact on the export of Alberta beef. 

The new case is the first in Canada since 2011. 

Industry hit hard in 2003

Exports of Canadian beef were badly hit in 2003 after the first case of BSE was found on a farm. Canada tightened its controls and many nations have since resumed the beef trade with Canada, despite the discovery of more cases since then.

"We would have preferred never to have seen another case, but recognizing that these types of very isolated cases have occurred before, at this stage I'd call it disappointing and hopefully the last one we see," Laycraft said. 

The CFIA also said the new case should not harm Canadian exports of beef.

"The CFIA is seeking to confirm the age of the animal, its history and how it became infected. The investigation will focus in on the feed supplied to this animal during the first year of its life," the agency said.

BSE — a progressive, fatal neurological disease — is believed to be spread when cattle eat protein rendered from the brains and spines of infected cattle or sheep. Canada banned that practice in 1997.

The CFIA tightened feed rules in 2007 and said at the time the moves should help eliminate BSE nationally within a decade, although the agency said it still expected to discover the occasional new case.

A prion disease called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD) has been linked to consumption of tissue from animals infected with BSE, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Scientific evidence indicates that vCJD is caused by the same agent that causes BSE in cattle, according to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

Minister not worried

Federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz, in Calgary to address the Western Barley Growers Association, told reporters the government is following international protocols and there's little reason for producers to worry.

"I don't see this as interfering with any or of our trade corridors at this time," he said.

Canada currently has controlled-risk status with the World Organization for Animal Health – under which 12 outbreaks are allowed in any calendar year.

"We've stayed well below that," Ritz said.

Officials are not revealing the exact location of the farm where the infected animal was discovered, but he said it was not indigenous to that farm.

Canada's ability to trace animals was greatly enhanced in response to the 2003 crisis, Ritz said.

"Traceability is a big part of what we have now. That gets us into markets like Japan and Korea where they're very concerned about this type of follow-through," he said. 

Laycraft speculated that the infection might have come from old feed.

"In these isolated cases that they've found elsewhere in the world, normally they would attribute it to a little bit of isolated product, usually on the farm or ranch, that's just been sitting there for a number of years," he said.

"It could be at the back of the bin or an old bag. They assume it is something related to a very old bit of feed."

Alberta's chief provincial veterinarian, Dr. Gerald Hauer, said BSE has a long incubation period, which explains why cases still crop up years after Canada tightened the feed rules.

"It's many years later from the time they're infected to the time that they actually show the clinical symptoms," he said. "So that's why there's always a long lag period."

With files from CBC