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INDEPTH: MAD COW
Meat safety: Is it safe to eat Canadian beef?
CBC News Online | June 27, 2005

Because we don't have all the answers about diseases like mad cow, it's impossible to issue a guarantee about the safety of Canada's meat supply. However, most leading experts and politicians have maintained that the risk to Canadians has always been extremely low.

Federal and provincial agencies designed the meat inspection process to err on the side of caution. But, the system isn't infallible – a fact made evident in the investigation into the possible distribution of "deadstock" by an Ontario company, Aylmer Meat Packers.

Deadstock are animals that have died before slaughter, sometimes from illness. The potential of spreading illnesses, including mad cow disease, makes selling or processing meat from dead animals for human consumption illegal.

THE INSPECTION PROCESS

All animals are inspected within 24 hours before slaughter. If they are considered fit, they go to the kill floor with other inspected livestock. After the slaughter, the entire carcass is examined again (with particular attention to internal organs). If the inspector has any concerns, a veterinarian is consulted who will pass, condemn or hold the carcass for further testing.
Scientists believe people develop the human version of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) when they eat meat from infected animals. Speaking about the initial case of BSE in Alberta, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency said: "Given that the cattle get the disease by eating contaminated feed and there is a feed ban in place, the probability of having more infected animals is very low."

In a statement on its web site on May 21, 2003, the CFIA said, "�we have no reason, at this point, to believe that there is a risk to human health." The agency was referring to the fact that no meat from the infected cow had entered the human food chain.

"I believe most sincerely that the beef products that we put on the market are safe," said then-Alberta Agriculture Minister Shirley McClellan.

"I think we should not be worried," Dr. Neil Cashman of the Centre for Research on Neurodegenerative Diseases at the University of Toronto told CBC News. "It is estimated two million infected cattle went into the human food chain in the United Kingdom alone in the '80s and '90s... This has to date only affected 130 people. That's tragic, of course, but if you compare the number of people affected with two million infected cattle, then you look at Canada's single isolated case or at most a few isolated cases, the risk looks minimal."

During the height of the BSE crisis in the U.K. and Europe in 1992, some consumers avoided British beef and beef products altogether. Others chose cuts with a lower chance of being contaminated, until beef on the bone was eventually banned outright. The British beef industry has still not recovered. There were 510 animals diagnosed with the disease in Britain in 2002. There were 36,680 cases in 1992.

Here is some basic information issued by the National Center for Infectious Disease and Health Canada about ways to avoid BSE:

  • The best available scientific evidence indicates that whole cuts of meat without the bone, such as steaks and roast, provide a lower level of risk of potential BSE contamination than do processed products such as sausages, burgers or pat�s.

  • Higher-risk items also include any other food products such as minced meats that might contain brain or spinal cord parts, since these are considered to have the highest concentration of prions (the disease-causing agent) in infected cattle and therefore carry the highest potential risk of transmission.

  • BSE is unlike many other food-borne pathogens in that it cannot be killed simply by cooking the infected meat.

  • Milk and milk products from cows are not believed to pose any risk for transmitting the BSE agent.






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    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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