Mad Cow Disease’s lingering impact on the beef industry of PEI

Despite not one single case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy being found on Prince Edward Island, the bad news hit the industry as hard here as anywhere else.

BSE, otherwise known as Mad Cow Disease, has been found officially in Canada since the 1990s.

The first reported case was back in 1993. A cow imported from Britain in 1987 was infected. It was found that animal feed that included animal protein was probably the culprit. That animal was destroyed. The first case of BSE of a Canadian-born animal was found in May 2003; a black Angus cow from Alberta. The United States immediately closed its border to Canadian beef and cattle and another forty countries quickly followed suit.

The impact here was just as profound as out west. “The effects of BSE touched all our producers as it drove the price down across the country regardless of where the producer lived,” PEI Cattle Producers spokesperson Rinnie Bradley said. “To add to this, the ad hoc programs offered by the federal government were developed for farmers in western and central Canada, and were not made available to farmers in the Maritimes because they actually conflicted with our production practices here and would have been of little benefit.” Efforts to make changes to these programs were unsuccessful.

“The recovery was a slow and painful process.” “For example in PEI immediately following BSE we had 750 beef producers, today that number is 450. While some of the decline may have been attributable to other factors, the majority exited the industry due to lack or profitability following BSE.”

BSE is a progressive, fatal disease of the nervous system. It is very similar to scrapie in sheep, chronic wasting disease in deer and elk, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in people. The exact cause is not known, but is connected to the presence of an abnormal protein called a prion. There is no treatment.

As of July 2017, 20 cases have been found in Canadian-born cattle. Of these, 14 were born after the implementation of the 1997 Canadian feed ban.

Despite the beef ban, the industry fought back and was mostly successful.

“Some actions taken included launching domestic campaigns that drove support within the domestic market,” Bradley said. “Consumption of beef domestically rose following BSE. A larger scale effort was to regain the confidence of our trading partners was launched. Canada incorporated testing requirements…This testing lead to the eventual re-opening of borders to Canadian beef. Most of the beef exported immediately following the re-opening of borders, was for boneless beef. Since 2003 some countries have allowed bone-in beef to be imported from Canada.”

The industry recovery has been slow but some headway is being made even years after the first animal was diagnosed.

“Prices have slowly and steadily rebounded,” Bradley said. “A year ago prices were the highest on record but they have since come back down. BSE lead to the decline of the Canadian herd overall. The industry is still striving to provide a higher return to producers.”

ABPI//Photo Credit: submitted photo

BSE is strange in that the time between an animal’s exposure to the disease and the onset of symptoms is four to five years. There is no test to diagnose the disease in live animals, a tentative diagnosis is made based on symptoms. Diagnosis can only be confirmed by examination of the animal’s brain once it’s dead.

The industry on PEI has been successful in protecting itself from BSE but is it ready for another outbreak?

“We continue our BSE surveillance,” Bradley said. “This will continue until we have not seen a reported case of BSE for a certain number of years.”

Under current rules at the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), a country must be BSE free for 11 years since the birthdate of the last infected case. Canada’s last case was in 2015 in a cow born in 2009, so it is not eligible to change its status until 2020.

“However, countries recognise that Canada continues to test for BSE and they have trust that this testing is identifying only a very small and acceptable number of animals with BSE per year,” Bradley said. “Canada is also working toward full traceability. The level of traceability that Canada currently has enables CFIA to trace back the animals that might have been exposed to the feed or to other animals with BSE. As we move forward, our ability to accurately trace animals will improve.”

About Rod Weatherbie

Rod Weatherbie is a writer working in the hospitality industry. He spent a number of years in Toronto as a member of the financial press before returning to PEI. Rod has published one piece of short fiction, one book of poetry, and has had work published in Red Shift, the Antigonish Review, Mitre, and the Toronto Quarterly. He has also recently co-produced, co-directed, and acted in a stage production of old television shows.

He also likes writing about food. Go figure.

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