Canada Allows Banned Mad Cow
Feed Practices - Still Imports
Suspect Products
By Margaret Munro

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 from Europe.
And it is trouble that is proving impossible to contain in Europe.
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 country.
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 Ayerst.
"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 from beef.
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 symptoms appear.
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 causes.
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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