30 ranches quarantined after bovine tuberculosis found in southeast Alberta

Thirty ranches in southeast Alberta are under quarantine after a case of bovine tuberculosis was detected in a cow headed to slaughter in the United States.

Animal headed for slaughter detected by officials in the U.S.

One case of bovine tuberculosis in a cow headed to slaughter in the U.S. has forced the quarantine of 30 ranches in southeast Alberta. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

Thirty ranches in southeast Alberta are under quarantine after a case of bovine tuberculosis was detected in a cow headed to slaughter in the United States, according to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

The CFIA was informed of the case by the United States Food Inspection Agency (USDA) in late September.

The cow was from a ranch near Jenner, Alta., about 100 kilometres north of Medicine Hat. 

A CFIA investigation with veterinarians and investigators is underway, and the quarantined ranches are all located in the Buffalo Atlee and Suffield Block community pastures. According to the CFIA website, more ranches may become part of the investigation.

Ranchers have feared in the past that the disease may have been caused by the ever-growing elk population in the area, but a CFIA official would not confirm if that is the case. 

Margo Pybus, a provincial wildlife disease specialist, says that's extremely unlikely.

"In my opinion, that's a completely substantiated leap of faith to think this TB has anything to do with the elk in Suffield," she said

"We know that the elk that started that current population in Suffield were transplanted from Elk Island National Park in the mid- to late-1990s. Those elk would have been TB tested and deemed to be uninfected."

'It's devastating for a producer'

A spokesperson for the Alberta Beef Producers calls the situation "devastating" to the industry.

When a ranch is under quarantine, none of the herd can be moved from the ranch, even if some of the animals were previously committed to be sold. 

"It's the worst possible time of year for these ranchers to have their cattle held and not be able move them," said Rich Smith. "This is the peak time for selling calves and they are not able to sell their calves."

The case has caught ranchers off guard, considering there has not been a case of bovine TB in Canada since 2011. 

"None of these ranchers have done anything wrong," said Smith. "And suddenly an animal tests positive for TB and they are as devastated as you'd expect them to be. It's devastating for a producer, financially and emotionally."

Smith says a number of animals in the infected herd will likely end up going to slaughter or being destroyed.

He says it's possible ranchers will ask the government for compensation depending on the outcome and how long the testing takes. 

Meanwhile, until the testing is completed, it's impossible to know how the cow was infected, Smith said. 

Pybus said the disease is highly contagious and spread by nose-to-nose contact.

"It's a difficult bacterium to find. It can actually be hidden in an animal for a number of years and then just eventually establish as an infection. So that's what part of makes it difficult to eradicate this disease."

Bovine TB is a reportable disease in Canada. All suspected cases must be reported to the CFIA, which then adheres to a strict testing and eradication of animals with the disease.  

The disease is contagious and is caused by the mycobacterium bovis bacteria, which animals contract by inhalation or ingesting the organism. It usually affects cattle, bison, elk, deer, goats and sheep, but may affect all mammals —including humans.

Bovine TB is not considered a public health threat because there are low incidents of the disease in Canada, but it is recommended that anyone who has had contact with an infected animal should see a doctor.