- When a herd of cattle goes into a slaughterhouse, only
half comes out as meat. The other half is left behind in an unsavoury pile
of entrails, blood and bones. The scraps are carted off to rendering plants
and transformed into all manner of products: gelatin for use in desserts
and soups, serums and extracts used in vaccines and cosmetics and meal
used in animal feed.
- "You can't just leave it in the parking lot, you
have to do something with it," says Dr. Claude Lavigne, deputy director
of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency's animal health division.
- While these animal recycling practices have the blessing
of the agency, they are increasingly regarded as one of several weak links
in Canada's defence against mad cow disease.
- Not only does this country permit animal feeding practices
that have been banned in Europe in an effort to prevent the spread of the
dreaded brain-wasting disease, but the federal government continues to
allow importation from Europe of goods that contain bovine material, among
them gelatin, blood meal and tallow products.
- "They are just asking for trouble," says Dr.
David Westaway, a researcher at the University of Toronto.
- It is the kind of trouble that has federal officials
on the hot seat trying to defend the use of five vaccines -- some of them
given to Canadian children -- that are believed to contain bovine serum
- And it is trouble that is proving impossible to contain
- In recent months, Western Europe has been thrown into
crisis as mad cow disease has turned up in cattle in France, Spain, Italy
and Germany. The crisis is killing great European gastronomic traditions,
including the French entrecôte, German sausage and the Spanish ritual
of savouring the meat of bulls killed in the ring.
- Europe's geographic and regulatory barriers have proved
no match for tiny prions, the infectious proteins that have infected more
than 180,000 cattle in the past 15 years, most of them in Britain, and
killed approximately 90 people.
- Yesterday, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization warned
mad cow disease could spread worldwide and urged governments to take steps
to prevent the epidemic from reaching humans. The warning came as U.S.
health authorities placed an unspecified number of Texas cattle in quarantine
after reports their feed may have been contaminated by animal protein.
- Canadian officials stress there is no evidence the disease
has reached North America. There has never been a domestic case of mad
cow disease, also known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), in this
- And they insist the food system is safe -- "very,
very, very safe," says Eric Morin, a public affairs officer at Health
Canada who handles queries about mad cow disease.
- They also stress Canada has taken steps to keep mad cow
at bay. European imports of beef and certain beef products have been banned.
Sick cattle are tested and diverted away from rendering plants. And anyone
who has lived in Britain or France for more than six months since 1980
cannot donate blood. "We've been very proactive," Mr. Morin says.
- But not proactive enough for Mike McBane of the Canadian
Health Coalition, an advocacy group based in Ottawa. Mr. McBane is convinced
it is just a matter of time before mad cow crosses the Atlantic.
- To slow its transit, the coalition is pushing for more
stringent rules on importing animal products from Europe.
- It also wants a recall of vaccines thought to contain
bovine extracts from Europe and a ban in Canada on feeding recycled animal
scrap to other animals.
- "When you are dealing with catastrophic risk, you
have to take precautionary measures," Mr. McBane says. "You can't
wait for the disease to show up."
- Dr. Lavigne confirms bovine products from Europe are
still being imported. These include gelatin, dairy products such as cheese,
tallow derivatives and mammalian biological extracts. He and other officials
stress there is no evidence these products can transmit mad cow disease.
- But Mr. Morin says Health Canada has set up a committee
to "review" the situation. "We're not worried, but we understand
this is an area we have to look at.
- "Frankly," he adds, "the stuff is used
more in cosmetics than anything else."
- It may also be present in five vaccines, though Mr. Morin
could not say how much bovine product is involved. Nor could he say if
it would be possible to recall the material without creating a vaccine
shortage. The five vaccines in question are: Act Hib (to prevent hemophilus
influenzae Type B), made by Aventis Pasteur; Infanrix (a vaccine for young
children that prevents diptheria, tetanus and acelluar pertussis), by SmithKline
Beecham; Havrix (a hepatitis vaccine), by SmithKline Beecham; IPOL (inactivated
polio virus) by Aventis Pasteur, and sold in Canada under the name Imovax
Polio; and Pnu-Immune (pneumococcal polysaccharide), produced by Wyeth
- "We shouldn't be injecting this stuff into our children,"
Mr. McBane says.
- Mr. Morin is not so sure. The benefit of vaccination
is "indisputable," he says, while the theoretical risk of a vaccine
transmitting mad cow disease is "infinitesimally small."
- At this stage, scientists believe the only way to "catch"
the disease is by eating infected meat -- perhaps as little as a few bites.
- The prevailing theory is people can get the disease by
eating beef that contains misshapen "prion" proteins. The proteins
occur naturally in human and animal brains. But when they mutate -- as
is the case in mad cow disease -- a chain reaction is started that destroys
brain tissue, at least in susceptible individuals.
- Infectious prion proteins are believed to concentrate
in the brain and spinal cord of cattle. Steaks and other muscle tissue
are not thought to harbour them. Nor are dairy products or the myriad of
processed products such as gelatin, health-food supplements and serum made
- Contaminated animal feed is believed to have spread the
disease in Europe. The most likely scenario is that brain and spinal cord
tissue were mixed with meat accidentally during slaughter, or in meat separation
processes, and ended up in feed. Rendered animal protein was widely used
in Britain and Europe as a supplement in livestock feed.
- Canada and the United States, as precautions, have for
years banned imports of beef products and animal feed containing beef remnants
from Britain and Europe. Both countries extended the ban at the end of
last year to include feed containing any kind of animal protein, such as
scrap from chickens or pigs. This was prompted by concern that many European
farmers were still giving feed made from potentially infected cows to chickens
and pigs and were then feeding chickens and pigs back to cows. This practice
is now banned in Europe, and Dr. Lavigne says Canadian and United States
officials feared European feed manufacturers might try to dump the now-banned
feed in North America.
- Critics, such as Mr. McBane, say there are still many
cracks and loopholes in the system. They point to rendering plants and
feed mills and recent reports that question the diligence of the folks
handling animal carcasses, scraps and feed.
- The United Nations estimates that at the height of the
mad cow epidemic in Britain at least 500,000 tons of untraceable bovine
byproducts were exported from Britain to Western Europe and other nations
around the world, including possibly Canada and the United States. (The
incubation period for mad cow disease is unknown and could be anywhere
from a few years to decades.)
- And the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently showed
that some American rendering and feed suppliers have been sloppy about
following laws meant to prevent scraps from ruminants -- like cattle --
being fed back to beef and dairy herds. Canada imports large amounts of
animal feed from the United States
- If and when the disease starts killing Canadians, Dr.
Catherine Bergeron should be the first to know. In the containment lab
at the University of Toronto's Centre for Research in Neurodegenerative
Diseases, she and her colleagues examine brain tissue from Canadians suspected
of having classical Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, which is the rare but naturally
occurring human variety of the brain-wasting disease. Since the lab's inception
in 1997, the centre has examined brain tissue from 127 people across Canada.
Almost half of them were found to have classical CJD, the always fatal
disease that afflicts one in a million people each year.
- But there has not been a single case of "new variant"
CJD, the strain wreaking havoc across Europe and which scientists believe
is caused by the prions associated with mad cow disease. In Britain, 88
people have developed "new variant" CJD. Three people from France
and one from Ireland have also died. In contrast to classical CJD, the
new variant hits younger people; the average age of onset is 28. The first
sign is psychiatric problems, and it can also interfere with sight, hearing
and sense of smell. Then comes poor muscle co-ordination, muscle spasms
and mental confusion. Most victims are dead 13 months after their first
- Scientists know that various forms of prions have been
around for a long time. They cause classical CJD in humans, scrapie in
sheep and a disease known as chronic wasting disease in deer and elk. The
prions responsible in these cases are thought to arise sporadically in
one in a million people and animals a year. This explains why nearly 30
Canadians a year develop classical CJD.
- Until mad cow disease appeared, prions were not thought
to jump from species to species. What is so unnerving about mad cow disease
is its apparent ability to move from cattle to people.
- "Mad cow disease has a lot of biological characteristics
that are entirely new," Dr. Bergeron says. "BSE is not obeying
the rules [preventing transmission between species]. That's worrisome.
- "It's the uncertainty that unravels people,"
Dr. Bergeron continues, adding the concern is justified. She remembers
all too well when HIV appeared -- "and it was just a disease of a
few gay men."
- Though mad cow disease has not been detected in people
or cattle in Canada or the United States, the related prion disorder, chronic
wasting disease, is spreading among deer and elk herds. It has shown up
in Saskatchewan and in domestic and wild deer in the United States There
have also been reports that captive mink in the United States developed
a form of mad cow disease after being fed meat from cows that died of unknown
- Last year, an outbreak of chronic wasting disease among
domestic elk hit six farms in Sas-katchewan. The Canadian Food Inspection
Agency ordered the destruction of the 1,500 animals at the ranches.
- The carcasses were thrown into a large pit and burned,
Dr. Lavigne says. The charred remains, and any vestiges of the prions that
caused the disease, were buried in an undisclosed location.
- While the agency feels it has the disease under control,
the fallout could cost the Canadian elk industry millions of dollars. When
Korean importers learned of the slaughter they slapped a ban on imports
of Canadian elk antler velvet, which is used in herbal medicines. Eleven
tonnes -- about $900,000 worth -- of Canadian velvet has been impounded
in Korea since the ban was imposed earlier this month.
- In a bid to get a better read on the disease, the CFIA
is asking hunters to send heads of deer and elk they kill for testing.
As for domestic elk, Dr. Lavigne says vets and farmers are now required
to report when animals exhibit symptoms and send samples in for testing.
- The department has similar rules for sick cattle. Any
animals with suspicious symptoms must be tested and diverted from rendering
plants and destroyed. About 900 cattle were tested in Canada last year,
Dr. Lavigne says. Not one was found to have BSE. (The French test close
to 20,000 animals a week, and the Germans recently lowered the age for
testing cattle in response to consumer concern.)
- Dr. Lavigne says he is satisfied with testing rates in
Canada. But he says the department is tracking mad cow developments closely
and policies change as warranted. Some people feel the department should
be more diligent.
- "I don't see what they could lose by doing more
testing," Dr. Westaway says. "If [BSE] is here, it's better to
know. If it's not here, then the world will beat a path to your doorstep
to get your cattle."
- Like Mr. McBane at the health coalition, Dr. Westaway
would also like to see the government put a stop to feeding animal remains
to other animals, like the ban recently imposed in Europe. In Canada and
the United States, meal from beef and other ruminants cannot be fed back
to ruminants. But it can be fed to chickens and swine. A recent U.S. FDA
report says many feed mills in the country are not following the rules.
According to the report, 16% of cattle rendering plants were improperly
labelling their products and 9% of feed mills did not have a system to
prevent co-mingling of products from potentially risky meat sources with
other meat. Officials do not compile national compliance records on the
500 feed mills across Canada. But Dr. Lavigne and his colleagues insist
the compliance at Canadian rendering plants and feed mills is "excellent."
They say eliminating the use of animal proteins in feed would be "drastic"
and unjustified at this stage.
- Mr. McBane disagrees, and says a ban is the safest way
to go. Canada imports large quantities of animal feed from the United States,
where cross-contamination and mix-ups have been documented. Also, cattle
may end up being fed the recycled remains of chicken that lived on meal
containing bovine scrap.
- Dr. Westaway agrees feeding animals to animals is worrying.
"It seems crazy that they keep doing it," he says.
- Even in the absence of mad cow disease, chronic wasting
disease is present in North America and could be spread in feed. "The
diseases are there, so to continue to feed rendered protein extracts to
animals seems puzzling and foolhardy," Dr. Westaway says. "They
should just stop doing it."
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