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Mad cow may lurk here:
An internal Health Canada report identifies many routes the fatal disease could have taken to Canada,
but other experts say the hysteria has been overblown.

April 2, 2001 The Gazette (Montreal) by Dene Moore
Mad-cow disease could be silently lurking in the Canadian food chain despite claims that Canada is BSE-free, according to an internal report prepared for Health Canada. But other experts say the hysteria over Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy is overblown, considering how little is known about the disease.

"This is just not one of the risks that we're facing at the moment," said Mick Price, a professor of livestock growth and meat production at the University of Alberta.

BSE has ravaged Britain and western Europe and been linked to 90 deaths from the human form - variant Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease.

It is reasonable to classify Canada's risk as low because no cases have emerged and because of actions taken to prevent the spread of the disease from Britain, according to the draft report prepared last summer for Health Canada. But the risk cannot be ruled out, said the assessment written by Joan Orr and Mary Ellen Starodub and obtained under the access-to-information law. The report is being reviewed by Health Canada and has not been made public.

There is evidence the disease can incubate for up to eight years. The report from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency says most cattle in Canada and the U.S. are slaughtered before the age at which they would show symptoms. Because of this, "it is possible that animals could be harbouring the infective agent without reaching the stage of disease at which clinical signs or infectivity in brain tissues could have developed."

Canada tests thousands of animals each year. France and Britain test thousands each week.

Animals in Canada showing symptoms are tested and there are random tests of animals that don't.

"It's not done on a set frequency, but we collect samples throughout the year," said Penny Greenwood, policy co-ordinator of transmissible spongiform encephalopathy for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. The agency has had a BSE-surveillance program in place since 1992.

"Testing can never prove you don't have the disease," Greenwood said. "What it can do is give you an idea of the risk." And the risk in Canada is negligible, she said. Yet the Health Canada report identifies many routes BSE could have taken to Canada.

Vaccine and hormone preparations have been suggested as possible modes of transmission. Bovine hormones are commonly used in cattle to promote growth and enhance fertility. Vaccines and hormones were imported fromb Britain and other BSE-infected countries in 1992 and 1999, according to the report.

The greatest risk of variant Creutzfeldt-Jacob infection in Canadians is from British beef products imported at the height of the epidemic, including baby food, the report states.

Several children's vaccines were produced in Britain using bovine materials at the peak of the BSE epidemic and were not recalled. Data on the possible importation of these vaccines was not available to the researchers. The risk from imported blood, tallow, gelatin, semen, embryos and milk products is uncertain, but food supplements pose a risk, the report says. Further investigation is needed, it suggests.

Pigs and poultry have been shown to be susceptible to BSE in experiments, although there have been no confirmed cases. Live pigs have been imported from Britain.

"The possibility must be considered that BSE is silently incubating in animal species that are being or have been in the past exposed to the BSE agent," the report says.


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