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Mad Cow Strikes Again in Canada

On February 11, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) confirmed bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in one beef cow in Alberta, Canada. 

BSE – more commonly known as mad cow disease – is a progressive, fatal neurological disease found in cattle. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), symptoms include lack of coordination, abnormal posture, or nervous or violent behavior, lending to the nickname “mad cow.” One of the key issues with diagnosing the disease early is that the symptoms can lay dormant for four to six years after the animal contracts BSE. 

When a cow with BSE is harvested, the parts not eaten by people are dried and ground up for many uses including animal feed. BSE is contracted when cattle eat feed with those abnormal prions of the infected cow. The FDA states that a cow with BSE likely consumed the contaminated feed in its first year of life.

The Alberta province first reported a “non-negative test for BSE” to the CFIA on February 7 leading to laboratory tissue tests and gathering of further information on the animal, its offspring, and its herd of origin to determine how and when it contracted the disease. The CFIA states that the investigation will focus on the feed supplied to the infected cow during its first year of life. CFIA is also looking into which other cattle are at “equivalent risk.” Those animals will be destroyed and tested for BSE.

At this time, there is no reliable way to test a live cow for BSE, especially during the incubation period of the symptoms. Scientists look at the animal’s brain tissue under a microscope to see if it has a spongy appearance. If so, the cow is confirmed with the disease.

This is Canada’s first case since 2011, and the CFIA reassures that this poses a very low food safety risk to human health in Canada. There have only been two cases of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD) – a fatal disease that can be contracted by eating meat from contaminated cattle – and those cases were linked to beef from a foreign country.

For more information and to see developing events, go to the CFIA’s site.

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