Fast, Simple, Cheap Test
For Mad Cow Shunned

You must forgive Dr. Sorin Musat-Marcu, the president of a small Edmonton-based biotech firm, if he sounds a bit frustrated about how Canada has handled its mad cow crisis. Several years ago, Musat-Marcu's company, HistoBest Inc., came up with a better way to enhance food safety: an efficient method for testing and banking animal tissue samples. The doctor's relatively cheap system could even diagnose several serious diseases, including mad cow--and all within 48 hours.
For more than two years, Musat-Marcu shopped his innovative technology around, but nobody in government or industry took much interest. Then, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease, struck Canada, and now both industry and government are floundering for solutions. "The truth should go out," says Musat-Marcu. "I won't back off."
What the truth apparently boils down to, from HistoBest's perspective, is truly maddening: it doesn't always pay to build a better mousetrap when the mouse in question is actually a mad cow. Based on lengthy correspondence with government officials, Musat-Marcu is now fairly convinced that the BSE crisis is a veritable Pandora's box. "If we do some proper testing, we will find a couple of hundred infected cows and nobody wants that," he says. "They want to keep the lid on this."
Musat-Marcu decries what he views as false science in government and media circles, and believes over-testing is the only way out of an ugly trade debacle, which has seen Canadian beef banned in the United States, Japan and several other countries. And every time he hears a government official say that BSE is just an animal health issue, he cringes. "Consumers have the right to know," says Musat-Marcu. "More than 140 Europeans have died, and they will continue dying for years to come. I'm very frustrated."
Just about everyone who knows Musat-Marcu agrees that the man is intensely passionate and incredibly forthright. "He's super intense and a bit of a genius," says Dr. John Elliott, a researcher at the University of Alberta's medical school and a regular client of HistoBest. Even Musat-Marcu admits he is not terribly patient or subtle. "I know that," he concedes. Scientists contacted by Canadian Business also agree that Musat-Marcu's technology, which also garnered excellent reviews from a researcher at the U.S. National Institute of Health, is very good--and should at the very least be developed as a pilot project. But they also argue that the federal regulations regarding BSE tests are, well, complex, if not intensely political, and that the biotech business is messy. Musat-Marcu, however, won't give up. "Everyone agreed it was good science," he says. "But they told me, 'Politically it will never fly. Watch your step.'"
So Musat-Marcu's story simply isn't about sour grapes, biotech gambles and missed opportunities. It's also about BSE science, the testing quandary and international trade politics. As things now stand, just two mad cows, a modest number by any standard, have cost the Canadian beef industry approximately $4 billion in lost business. (Japan's first three cases in 2001-02 cost about US$2.76 billion.) With our borders closed and as many as two dozen countries shunning Canadian beef--which had sales worth $7.6 billion in 2002--the devastation in cattle country has been immense. Just four months ago, a report prepared for the Calgary-based Canadian Animal Health Coalition calculated that "the aggregate economic and financial impacts of this outbreak represent the greatest threat and shock the Canadian agricultural industry has ever experienced." And that was before the second Canadian-born mad cow popped up in Washington state. Or before the U.S. Food and Drug Administration started restricting feed exports from more than a dozen Canadian companies on the basis that their "contaminated" products contained little more than feathers or animal hair.
Unlike many Canadian-born scientists, the Romanian-born and European-educated Musat-Marcu had a pretty clear understanding of the initial impact of BSE on the world beef trade long before he made any pitches for his technology. After Germany found its first indigenous mad cow in 2000, for example, beef exports in that country were forecasted to fall to 130,000 tonnes from 212,000. France's mad cow crisis initially resulted in a 50% drop in beef consumption, in a nation where steak frites was almost a staple. All in all, beef consumption in Europe was reportedly down by 28% of pre-1996 levels.
But what Musat-Marcu probably didn't realize was that the crippling of Europe's beef industry in the past five years has allowed several BSE-free countries, particularly Canada and the United States, an opportunity to infiltrate export markets formerly dominated by Europeans. And that probably helps to explain why world beef consumption actually increased by 3% in 2000--and why Canada occupied the world's No. 3 beef exporter spot last year before its mad fall from grace.
To help Canada keep that competitive edge and brand its product as the world's best, Musat-Marcu decided to apply HistoBest's unique technology to food safety in 2001. Partnered with Nick Nation, a veterinary pathologist, Musat-Marcu initially developed the system to preserve large amounts of tissue on a slide in what's called a "micro array." As he readily admits, his technology isn't fancy; he simply took the best ideas from more than 150 years of histology (the science of tissue sampling) and came up with a faster and cheaper test. Although HistoBest, one of many biotech spinoff companies out of the University of Alberta, found ready customers among biomedical researchers around the world, Musat-Marcu reckoned that an expansion into food safety was both logical and timely, given the global threat of animal diseases.
So he put together a business plan, as well as research proposals. Musat-Marcu calculated that his system and lab could initially test up to 375,000 animals per year (in 2002 Canada tested only 3,500 cattle annually for BSE), plus store all the information in a space measuring only one cubic metre. Histology, he noted, remained the gold standard for BSE testing. More importantly, his tissue bank allowed for retrospective studies. "If we had banked tissues from animals that have been slaughtered since 1997," explains Nation, "then we could have reviewed them and might have found the other animals with BSE at the time." In addition, Musat-Marcu estimated the enhanced testing would cost approximately $5 per shot--not the $20 to $50 the Canadian government is currently spending on BSE test kits.
Armed with these happy facts, Musat-Marcu approached regulatory officials and politicians, including then-agriculture minister Lyle Vanclief, two years ago. Some Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) officials frankly told him that the level of testing HistoBest was proposing just wouldn't fit with a U.S. policy of minimal testing, designed to protect North America's BSE-free status; others said his system was too good to be true. Some slaughterhouses, says Musat-Marcu, pointedly noted that they didn't want to find diseases they "officially" didn't have. The Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research, an agency operating at arm's length from the provincial government that Musat-Marcu had sought funding from, curiously noted that his technology "has the potential to identify those animals who are diseased and therefore remove them from the system (especially the food chain)" but went on to explain the organization couldn't grant any money because it didn't see any "human application."
A great many independent scientists, however, found strong merit in HistoBest's plan. John Webb, director of genetics and science at Toronto-based Maple Leaf Foods, believes that Musat-Marcu's technology is probably well suited to a slow slaughter line processing high-value meat like beef. But he doesn't think it's suited to pigs, for which Maple Leaf has instituted its own DNA tracking system from farm to plate. "I understand his frustration," says Webb. "The country should build [Musat-Marcu's] technology into its thinking."
Jake Burlet, president and CEO of Edmonton-based Viewtrak Technologies Inc., has had an entirely different experience than Musat-Marcu. Burlet has developed a computer software system that can track cattle from farm to the grocery store in real time on the Internet. Since December, sales have been brisk in the United States, and Burlet is now talking with CFIA officials. "We are trying to create a pull from industry rather than a push," he says.
Officials in the Alberta government looked at HistoBest's proposal, but ruled it out even before the mad cows came along. "Two years ago they told me they weren't interested and that I had to be patient," says Musat-Marcu. "But I'm not very patient." Veterinarian Cornelia Kreplin, director of food safety for the province, now acknowledges that she looked over the technology. She explains that Alberta has switched from a system of "immunohistochemistry," time-consuming microscopic exams of tissue samples, to rapid BSE automated tests made by Bio-Rad Laboratories Inc., a California-based multinational that manufactures diagnostic tests. Musat-Marcu's technology, she says, "just didn't meet our current needs."
Most of the federal testing now done in Canada involves one of two European-approved tests operating under "an emergency license" by the CFIA. That means only labs equipped with specific equipment and European-trained personnel, or Canadians who have studied under them, can use the diagnostics. "It's not like an open licence where any veterinarian can do the test," explains Paul Kitching, director of the Winnipeg-based National Centre for Foreign Animal Disease. "We are only looking at tests validated in the European Union." Issues such as what kind of tests, or how and which animals should be tested, have little to do with scientists, he adds. "At the end of the day it is the decision of politicians in Ottawa."
The scale of Canadian testing is now the subject of much heated debate. Even Alberta Premier Ralph Klein has gone from the extreme of recommending a "shoot, shovel and shut up" approach to BSE last year to fond musings last month about the Japanese solution: the testing of every slaughtered animal. Although the Canadian government proposes to beef up testing from a paltry 5,500 animals per year to 30,000 or more by 2009, at a cost of $92 million, few consider those numbers adequate. And many wonder just where all the money will be going. Musat-Marcu estimates that CFIA's plan amounts to $3,000 per test, and just shakes his head. "I even offered to do 300 samples a day to help out last year because they didn't have enough manpower," he says. "But nobody called back. Zero." University of Toronto biologist David Westaway, an expert in prions, the proteins that are thought to cause BSE, calculates that the $92 million could actually test nearly a quarter of the animals slaughtered every year, or upwards of 500,000 head of cattle.
But many animal experts question the wisdom and cost of increased testing. The Japanese can afford to test every animal because they have a small abattoir system and much smaller throughput, notes Gerald Ollis, Alberta's chief provincial veterinarian. North America's big slaughterhouses, he says, just don't have the refrigeration space for that kind of testing. "And there is no science to support it," adds Ollis. "It's a perception thing."
Others believe Canada isn't prepared to ramp up its testing for fear of embarrassing the United States. "The Americans don't want to go there," notes a former federal veterinarian who requested anonymity. "If they find it [BSE], they have no way trace it," he says. (Unlike the United States, Canada has a cattle identification program.) "So they are trying to convince the rest of the world that it's gone overboard on BSE. The whole thing has been badly handled. Canada has done a better job than the U.S., but nobody has done a good job."
Chris Clark, an assistant professor of large-animal medicine at the University of Saskatchewan's veterinary college in Saskatoon, is convinced that Canada will definitely find more cases every year for several years to come, due to approximately 68 British imports that entered the food chain in this country in the late 1980s or early '90s. Free trade in animals and feed almost guarantees that the United States has a big or bigger problem, he adds. "I think it's unbelievable that they don't have mad cow."
To date, the absence of federal leadership--not to mention decisive action--has many people just as agitated as Musat-Marcu. Consider William Leiss, a risk-management analyst at the University of Calgary's Haskayne School of Business. "It all boils down to idiot economics, where billions of dollars in losses later, Canadians are still told we can't afford to spend on necessary and cost-effective tests to restore confidence in our animal health programs," he argues in a provocative essay posted on the Internet.
Like Musat-Marcu, Leiss believes that Canada has to take some pretty dramatic actions. He proposes an independent assessment of BSE risk, an independent audit of feed mills, and open negotiations with trading partners to achieve a "mutually determined, enhanced surveillance and testing regime." Leiss also questions the wisdom of rebuilding a food industry as vulnerable as Canada's export-driven and export-dependent beef industry.
Musat-Marcu says he won't be surprised if those kinds of ideas meet the same kind of resistance his technology did. Beef producers, on the other hand, wonder if they'll have anything left to export, let alone test, if Canada doesn't bite the bullet on mad cow disease.
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