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Scrapie causes farmers to fear for their livestock

April 4, 2001 Country Canada (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation)
REG SHERREN [anchor]: Hello. I'm Reg Sherren. Welcome to Country Canada. There have been a lot of developments reported in recent weeks right across North America about the problems associated with scrapies in sheep herds. The fatal brain disease affecting sheep recently led to the destruction of hundreds of animals in Vermont. Some of the sheep were imported from Europe and experts were also worried about mad cow disease. And in Manitoba farmer Richard Davis lost most of his flock after the Canadian Food Inspection Agency confirmed scrapies. Of course scrapies in Canada isn't new. Two years ago Marie Thompson reported on a Quebec farmer who lost his entire flock to the disease. We've decided to show you that story again because the issues raised then are just as relevant today.

MARIE THOMPSON [reporter]: St-Gabriel de Rimouski. Georges Parent and his wife Jeanne Mance are starting all over again. That's because just over a year ago their prize-winning ewes and 1500 other sheep were put down. Georges had noticed a couple were getting sick and he reported the case to the government.

GEORGES PARENT [sheep farmer], Interpretation: The day of the slaughter we had to bring the animals out ten by ten. I opened the gate, I called several ewes by name, and they came when I called. That was very difficult because I was leading them to their deaths. That was really something.

THOMPSON: These are new animals to Georges. It will take a while before they respond to his call. But Georges' flock wasn't the only one eradicated. In the past two years 246 farmers in Quebec have had to destroy more than 11,000 sheep... 11,400 animals burned or buried, barns washed down and disinfected, all because of an unproven fear that brain-eating proteins in a disease called scrapie could kill humans.

DR. CLAUDE LEVIGNE [Canadian Food Inspection Agency]: They're nasty because they're kind of invisible. They're insidious. Their effect can take years and years to appear.

THOMPSON: No one knows what causes it, but scrapie seems to be passed on at birth when animals in the flock touch or eat the placenta. Years later it shows up. There's loss of motor control, the sheep scratches and scrapes its skin. It's always fatal. At the Canadian Food Inspection Agency in Ottawa the man in charge of the Animal Disease Control Program is Dr. Claude Levigne.

LEVIGNE: We have a special situation here that we can count an outbreak, and it's certainly something that we didn't foresee.

THOMPSON: Two years ago scrapie started turning up in higher numbers in eastern Canada. When the cases were traced back it was found they came from a couple of large flocks in Quebec that had sold widely across the province. There's no test that can show if an animal is harbouring the disease, so it's guilt by association. Not only do vets destroy a visibly sick sheep; the government can order all the rest of the flock to be put down too, just to be on the safe side. Scrapie's never been proven to transmit to humans, but the authorities are taking no chances.

LEVIGNE: We're just being cautious in case one day the disease evolved or we found, for instance, that some cases of scrapie would really be mad cow disease.

THOMPSON: Mad cow disease. It was in England in 1986 when bovine spongiform encephalopathy first showed up in cows.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: You can see how hypersensitive they are. They're standing there, they're very alert to any outside noise. Noise or movement seems to trigger them off. Their ears are twitching all the time. The animals will be slaughtered humanely.

THOMPSON: The symptoms in the new disease looked like scrapie, and they turned out to be the same family of disease. Then tragically mad cow disease was passed on to people who'd eaten meat from affected cows. Thirty-three have died. The British public was outraged. The government incinerated hundreds of thousands of cows so they'd never enter the food supply. Too late for people already infected, but not too late for other countries to learn to fear the same thing. With over 11,000 sheep dead, Quebec's sheep farmers said enough. In November they demonstrated in Ottawa against what they called a policy driven by fear. They said the compensation rates were too low. Georges Parent told reporters if tax payers want a risk-free food supply they should pay more for it.

PARENT: It's a collective problem. It's a situation I have to bear, and I can't bear it alone. It's the federal government. It's our society that ordered my flock destroyed.

THOMPSON: Back home in St-Gabriel de Rimouski, Georges has replaced only a third of his flock. That's all he could afford with the compensation he got. And he's still carrying other debts.

PARENT: If there's no other aid soon I'll have to start dismantling my farm, sell of land and buildings, maybe to hold onto a smaller portion.

THOMPSON: John Speed doesn't think Georges Parent should have to do that. He works for the Quebec Farmers Union, helping to lead the fight for more compensation.

JOHN SPEED [Quebec Farmers Union]: The problem with scrapie and all these related diseases is that the science is weak. So governments do tend to err on the side of excessive protectionist activities. You can do that if you decide to go that way, but you have to pay the cost of it.

THOMPSON: Finally the government did agree to increase its compensation, as much as doubling the pay-out to farmers. But the new prices will only apply to new cases. It won't apply to farmers who've already taken a hit, farmers like Georges Parent.

PARENT: I don't know what principle they're using, but I'd like to get a message across to the government. We did our duty as responsible citizens. We want the government to do the same.

SPEED: It can't be judged fair in any way. I mean, how can it be that a national control program is put into application on a sheep producer's farm, and he ends up potentially bankrupt? This is... this is shameful.

LEVIGNE: Raising animals is something that has a risk. Animals can get sick. They can have accidents. Anything can happen. And it's part of the risk of operating an animal industry.

THOMPSON: Cold comfort for Georges Parent, who's hoping against hope the government will give him more money. For him at least, the cost of keeping the food supply safe has proven very high indeed. For Country Canada, I'm Marie Thompson.

SHERREN: Georges Parent estimates he's lost between 150 and 200,000 dollars. He's still negotiating to try and get what he calls fair compensation for the destruction of his animals. Don't go away. We'll be right back.


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