Studies in the UK, where the first outbreak of mad cow occurred, show the disease infected cattle (and then humans, in the form of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease) through feed made from the carcasses of other animals. We should be worried, since some 217,000 kilograms of potentially contaminated feed was imported into Canada from the UK between 1993 and 96. Another 2.8 million kilos of potentially contaminated feed has been imported into Canada from European countries where mad cow has been confirmed since the onset of the disease in 96. Then there's the U.S., from which we imported 15.5 million kilograms of meat by-products, for feed and other purposes, in 2000 alone. Only 2,700 of the 9,500 rendering plants in the U.S. have been found to be following regulations to keep mad cow out.
MMM, MMM, BAD NEWS
While government officials, particularly here in Canada, are eager to downplay the danger of mad cow occurring here, cases have been confirmed in more than a dozen countries, most recently in Japan and Canada. There have been 125 definite or probable cases of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob in the UK, and the potential for many more worldwide. The incubation period for the disease in humans is anywhere from five to 40 years.
IN A PICKLE
News surfaced recently that Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) officials were sent scrambling last August to track 20 cattle imported from Japan, where that country's first case of mad cow had just been diagnosed. Government officials failed to track down all but four of the suspect animals; they had already been slaughtered. An earlier European Union report found 11 head of cattle in Canada "carrying a risk of being infected" with mad cow. The first reported instance of mad cow in Canada dates back to 1993, when a live cow with the disease was imported into Alberta. Canadian authorities raced to destroy it along with 400 others in the same herd, but how many have slipped through the cracks? Of 11 million head of beef cattle in Canada, only 900 were tested last year for mad cow. Some European countries are testing thousands every week.
WHOPPER OF A DISASTER
Under Canadian law, it's still legal for cattle to be fed a diet derived from "blood, gelatin, rendered animal fat or their products." It is also legal for pigs and chicken fed on rendered cattle meat to be rendered and fed back to cattle. There are also some 400 vaccines, medicines and other health care products made from bovine material. Some of the world's largest drug companies are still using bovine materials from countries known to have mad cow disease.
The speed with which beef is processed these days adds to the risk not only of mad cow, but of other diseases getting into the food chain. Today's beef cattle take as little as 16 months to go from pasture to dinner plate, twice as fast as 25 years ago. A single hamburger patty can contain meat from a dozen cattle or more, making the risk of contamination that much higher.
Health Canada officials are in denial. While the UN Food and Agriculture Organization says, "All countries that have imported cattle or meat and bone meal that originated from western Europe during and since the 1980s can be considered at risk," the feds continue to insist that the risk to humans is negligible -- although they have set up a committee to review the situation. Food safety experts have long said that food safety should be handled by an outside agency, not the CFIA, which is under the Department of Agriculture and thus acts as both promoter and regulator of the agriculture industry. If the recent case in Saskatchewan proves anything, it's that we are not immune.
Sources: Canadian Health Coalition, Ontario Cattlemen's Association, Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Statistics Canada, the UK Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease Surveillance Unit