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Dairy cows feed in their pen Friday, Jan. 2, 2004, at a farm in Mattawa, Wash. Authorities quarantined a third herd of Washington state cattle in a widening investigation of mad cow disease after they located another cow from the same Canadian herd as the infected cow. (AP Photo/E.B. McGovern)
Mad Cow in Canada: The science and the story
CBC News Online | August 24, 2006

In August 2006, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, the federal regulator responsible for monitoring the safety of Canadian cattle, confirmed a case of mad cow disease in an older cow in Alberta. It was the fifth case in 2006 and the eighth since 2003.

The agency said locating the cow shows the success of its monitoring program.

Brad Wildeman, vice-president of the Canadian Cattlemen's Association, took the same line.

More infected animals have been found because of the extent of the testing, he said.

"We probably have the most aggressive, safest beef supply of any country in the world."

For years, Canada had been virtually free of mad cow disease. But in May 2003, veterinary officials in Alberta confirmed that a sick cow sent to a slaughterhouse in January of that year had been inspected, found to be substandard, and removed so that it would not end up as food for humans or other animals.

The carcass was, however, sent to a processing plant for rendering into oils. Its head was kept for testing. Samples were sent to the world testing laboratories in the U.K., which confirmed the case of mad cow.

"What is important is that the system worked," said Shirley McClellan, Alberta's agriculture minister at the time. "We have a very thorough and respected inspection system." She was insistent to remind the public that the disease is not contagious within a herd.

But McClellan's assurances didn't stop the U.S., Japan, South Korea, Australia and other countries from imposing temporary import bans of Canadian beef.


Canada has close to 13.5 million cows and calves. About 5.7 million (or 42 per cent) are in Alberta.

Canada's total beef exports amount to $2.2 billion annually, and have risen sharply in recent years. Since 1991, beef exports have risen from 100,000 tonnes to about 500,000 tonnes. Growth in exports has been greatest to Japan, South Korea and Mexico. Alberta's share of total beef exports is 39 per cent (worth about $860 million a year).

Several ranches in Alberta, B.C. and Saskatchewan were quarantined as a precaution, including the infected cow's home ranch.

In an investigation into the source of the infection, 1,400 cows were slaughtered and tested for the disease. No other cows were found to have BSE until late December, 2004.

Western premiers demanded $360 million compensation from the federal government for losses to the beef industry because of the mad cow scare. Ottawa would later offer $190 million.

Over the summer of 2003, cattle ranchers held barbeques across Canada to help promote Canadian beef.

In August, the U.S. reopened its borders to some Canadian beef, but the border was still closed to live cattle. By this time, a cow that would have normally sold for $1,300 was selling for $15. Canadian beef producers asked Ottawa to approve a mass slaughter of 620,000 cattle to reduce the size of the herd and prevent further damage to the industry.

In October, CBC News reported that the border would reopen to live cattle in December 2003. But on Dec. 23, 2003, the U.S. announced that it had discovered its first apparent case of BSE in a cow in Washington state.

Several countries banned beef from the U.S. soon after the announcement, but Canada restricted imports only on some products made from cattle and other ruminants. It still allowed the import of cattle destined for immediate slaughter, boneless beef from cattle under 30 months of age and dairy products.

DNA evidence later revealed that the cow was born in Canada, and the U.S. kept its border shut to live Canadian cattle.


March 29, 2005: Federal government announces $321 million in immediate assistance to cattle ranchers and other animal producers.

Sept. 10, 2004: Federal government gives $488 million in aid to cattle producers.

March 22, 2004: Federal government releases $680 million in mad cow relief to cattle farmers.

June 19, 2003: Federal government announces $190 million in BSE compensation and pledges to spend $30 million on excess beef. The joint federal-provincial aid program totals $460 million.
It took a little more than a year for the United States to announce that it would reopen its border to live Canadian cattle younger than 30 months..

On Dec. 29, 2004, The USDA announced that it recognized Canada as a "minimal-risk region" for BSE and imports of young Canadian cattle would resume March 7, 2005.

The new classification means the U.S. will not again close its borders to Canadian beef unless there are two or more cases of BSE per one million cattle older than 24 months of age in each of four consecutive years. Simply put, Canada can have up to 11 cases of BSE and still be considered a safe country for cattle exports.

The move came less than a month after U.S. President George W. Bush made his first official visit to Canada and said the process for reopening the border was underway.

However, five days before the ban was to be lifted, a U.S. judge granted a temporary injunction to stop the reopening of the border. The ban came at the request of a group of American ranchers called R-CALF, who filed a lawsuit saying reopening the border would cause irreparable damage to the U.S. beef market.

In June 2005, the U.S. Department of Agriculture confirmed the country's second known case of BSE, in a Texas-born cow.

And on July 14, 2005, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a temporary injunction that banned importation of Canadian cattle. U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns announced that day that the U.S. border was "immediately" open to live Canadian cattle.

The British connection

Previously, Canada had only one case of a cow infected with BSE. The animal, reported on a farm near Red Deer, Alta., in December of 1993, was imported from Britain. Agriculture Canada opted to destroy the animal and its five herd mates.

Mexico, one of the largest importers of Canadian beef at the time, temporarily banned imports of Canadian cattle after the incident. The United States, another major consumer of Canadian beef, sent observers to Canada to see how the incident was handled.

As a result, and because of the rumours of possible human health implications circulating in Britain, the Ministry of Agriculture decided to destroy any animal imported from Britain between 1982 and 1990, the year a ban was placed on British beef imports to Canada. This slaughter also included the offspring of any of those animals.

All told, 363 animals were destroyed and their owners compensated. Some said the destruction was unnecessary, especially the farmers whose cattle were killed, but the ministry said it was better to err on the side of caution after seeing what was happening in Britain. As of January 2005, 148 Britons had died of vCJD and five others were infected but still living.

During the summer of 1995, the disease surfaced again. The Canadian Red Cross Society revealed two of its donors had died of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CJD. Two years later, concern over blood was raised again after a man was found to be a carrier of a gene linked to a hereditary form of CJD.

In August 2002, doctors confirmed a man in Saskatchewan died from new variant CJD � the human counterpart to mad cow disease. He had spent some time in the United Kingdom and it appeared he acquired the disease while he was there, doctors said.

The man had an endoscopic examination before he died and that equipment was then used on other patients. However, because of disinfection and cleaning procedures, the risk of cross contamination is minute. Public health officials phoned patients who had received examinations with the endoscope to inform them.

It's still not known if the disease can be transmitted through blood products.

In 1996, the Canadian government suspended imports of British beef embryos and semen. Agriculture Canada also began a review of the practice of using meat meal and bone meal as a protein source in beef cattle feed.

In 1997, changes designed to keep animal parts out of animal feeds were implemented. Among them, Ottawa made it illegal to give beef herds products made from rendered cattle. However, rendered cattle could be used in feed for pigs and poultry.

A month after Canada's first case of BSE, a panel of experts recommended that the parts of the cow that can pass on BSE, such as the brain and spine should be kept out of all animal feed. That's policy in most European countries.

It's a recommendation that has met stiff resistance in the beef industry. Including rendered cattle parts in feed means disposing of heads and intestines can make money for cattle farmers instead of costing them money.

Meanwhile, documents obtained by CBC News through the Access to Information Act show that in the weeks after that first case of BSE, cattle were allowed to eat feed meant for chicken and pigs. Some of the feed was likely made from the original diseased cow.

The federal agriculture minister at the time, Andy Mitchell, said the government is moving to ban the use of cattle remains in all feed. The regulations were due to be in place by the middle of 2005.

In fact, the CFIA got the right in July 2005 to make violators of its rules pay penalties; before that, it had been limited to warnings, seizure of products that broke the rules, suspension or cancellation of permits and prosecutions.

In June 2006, the agency said that effective July 2007, it "is banning cattle tissues capable of transmitting bovine spongiform encephalopathy from all animal feeds, pet foods and fertilizers."

But small establishments will get additional time to comply. The government said it had allocated $80 million to help the industry implement the new rules.



Food safety
CBC does not endorse and is not responsible for the content of external sites. Links will open in new window.

Managing the risks: variant CJD and blood [Health Canada]

Index of Disease Fact Sheets [Canadian Food Inspection Agency]

New Variant CJD [Canadian Blood Services]

Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) and Creutzfeldt Jakob Disease (CJD) [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention]

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