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Mad cow disease investigation is ongoing, here’s what you need to know

The first recorded case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) — more commonly known as mad cow disease — since 2010 was reported in Canada last month. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) reassured the public at the time that no part of that animal had reached the human or animal feed systems. Since the initial report, an investigation into the infected animal has been launched. What have we learned so far?

BSE is a fatal neurological disease that is often spread through contaminated feed. Humans can contract a variant of the disease known as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease if they consume infected beef. The disease is also fatal in humans.

A report posted by The World Organisation for Animal Health stated that 317 of the 750 cattle from the same birth cohort as the cow with the BSE were slaughtered. However, they later stated that those numbers might not be accurate. The investigation looks at all the cattle on a particular farm that may have been in contact with the cow confirmed to have BSE. They’ll also look at animals in the same food cohort, but those numbers are suspected to be much higher.

The cow with BSE was linked to a birth farm near Edmonton. This is the same birth farm that had a confirmed BSE case in 2010. Although two cases have been linked to the same birth farm, the CFIA doesn’t think there are any additional risk factors associated with the farm.

In most cases of BSE, up to half the cattle associated with the investigation would have already been slaughtered before there was any knowledge of an infected cow. While investigators say other cattle may have been exposed to the same feed as the infected cow, it’s too early to know how many.

So what does this mean for our food supply? Because of various measures put in place to ensure no cow with BSE reaches the food supply, the CFIA has confirmed that no part of the infected cow reached any part of any food system.

The biggest impact of the BSE case will be to Canada’s exports and subsequently the cattle farmers who rely on income from exports. Asian countries like South Korea and Japan are particularly concerned about a BSE outbreak. Six countries so far have put a block on all Canadian beef exports since the most recent case was exposed. A case in 2003 devastated the Canadian beef industry, with more than 40 countries blocking exports. Government and industry officials are hopeful that this case won’t lead to such a drastic outcome.

The public can rest assured that it doesn’t end here. A very thorough investigation, typically taking six months or more, will go into the farm and cattle associated with the infected cow. While it is typically difficult to pinpoint a specific factor that may have led to the infection, measures will be put in place to help prevent future contamination. Improved surveillance measures put in place since the last outbreak also help to ensure that even if a cow is infected, it does not enter any feed system.

Visit the CFIA website to get updates on the BSE investigation.

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