From: TSS (216-119-144-34.ipset24.wt.net)
Subject: Beef up the science ON MAD COW DISEASE
Date: January 27, 2005 at 2:39 pm PST
-------- Original Message --------
Subject: Beef up the science
Date: Thu, 27 Jan 2005 16:32:46 -0600
From: "Terry S. Singeltary Sr."
Reply-To: Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy
##################### Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy #####################
Globe and Mail
January 26, 2005
Beef up the science
By Andrew Nikiforuk
"Where's the science?" When U.S. inspectors check out the health of
Canada's cattle herds this week, they'll likely
hear the line that our BSE program is "science-based." It's the new
federal mantra on mad cows.
But a growing number of people are asking if Canada's mad-cow policies
are truly science based. They are
beginning to realize, as Albert Einstein clearly did, that "the whole of
science is nothing more than a refinement of
everyday thinking." In other words, science is common sense writ large.
Yet, any close examination of Canada's
bovine spongiform encephalopathy programs reveals a worrying lack of
refinement, thought or common sense.
Let's start with the institution responsible for our food supply: the
Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA).
Incorporated in 1997, this agency reports to the Minister of Agriculture
and is run by Richard Fadden, a former
security and intelligence co-ordinator for the Privy Council, a body not
known for its science.
Like the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), CFIA has two
incompatible mandates: promoting trade
and contributing to food safety. Trade clearly dominates. Since 1997,
the agency has downgraded its science
capabilities by closing labs; it has hired lots of folks with MBAs and
communication degrees; and it has adopted a
paper audit system for food inspection.
England had the same conflicted system until its BSE crisis revealed a
fatal weakness: When trade triumphs over
public health, industry eventually loses billions of dollars. Europe and
Japan also discovered the same drawbacks,
thanks to BSE.
So CFIA may be called a trade-based, industry-based, efficiency-based,
or even a public-relations-based agency.
But no citizen who has reviewed its BSE performance would call it
In fact, CFIA has regularly rejected good science. In July of 2000, a
team of European BSE scientists examined 23
countries, including Canada, to assess mad-cow risk. After studying data
on feed standards and cattle imports, these
scientists concluded, "BSE-infectivity could have entered the Canadian
The scientists also reported that, "Overall the Canadian rendering
industry is apparently not able to ensure a
significant reduction of incoming BSE-infectivity." The Europeans gave
the U.S. systems the same poor grade.
Both countries, however, ignored the science and replied with
trade-based rhetoric: "BSE is a European-disease."
Now what about this science-based "firewall" that has prevented cattle
cannibalism since 1997, the one that is
supposed to keep BSE out of the animals we eat? Even CFIA's records show
that this was as porous as a volleyball
Between 1999 and 2001, federal audits of 65 feed mills found that 31 per
cent didn't follow the rules. The following
year, 35 per cent of 70 firms didn't obey the ban. Full compliance, in
paper at least, wasn't achieved until the end of
2000, or three years after the ban. That's the same year the
Auditor-General identified general "problems with
compliance actions" at CFIA.
The half-hearted implementation of the ban can be explained by a 2000
Health Canada report on BSE risk that
described the ruminant feed ban as "a voluntary ban that is monitored by
CFIA." (The U.S. General Accounting
Office found that its feed ban was just as "flawed.") The same risk
report also noted that European feed bans were
notoriously leaky. England, for example, has had more than 44,000 cases
of BSE after its serious feed ban, for
reasons that still confound scientists.
Nor have the feed leaks here been plugged. In December, a Vancouver Sun
investigation based on internal CFIA
documents, revealed that half of 70 vegetable feed samples tested by
CFIA in 2004 contained "undeclared animal
materials." DNA assay testing would have identified how much of the
material was actually cattle protein, but CFIA
didn't do that. And without assay testing, say veterinary toxicologists,
Canada essentially has an unenforceable feed
We eat what our animals eat. For the record, one milligram of infected
material, the size of a grain of sand, can
infect a cow with BSE.
Approximately 600 feed mills in Canada produce 13 million tonnes of feed
But, hasn't our testing of cattle been scientific? Canada has what is
known as a passive surveillance system. In other
words, it picks out cows with central-nervous-system symptoms for the
odd test -- less than 1,000 cows a year until
France had a similar system that underreported BSE by 80 per cent and
allowed 50,000 severely infected animals to
enter the food chain.
"Because of this underreporting, the French BSE epidemic in the late
1980s was completely undetected and only the
second wave, after 1990, was observed" reported a study in the journal
Veterinary Science last year. In other words,
official statistics were not a true reflection of the epidemic.
Given France's data, Canada could be seriously underreporting BSE. But
CFIA won't know this until it begins a
responsible, active surveillance program.
The Canadian government's approach to BSE has been so trade-biased that
last year it even fired three scientists
from Health Canada for talking about the emerging science concerning
BSE. Margaret Haydon, an Alberta-born
veterinarian with more than 30 years of experience, was one of them. She
describes the present system as "corrupt"
and doesn't believe Canada's current level of testing (24,000 cows a
year) is close to adequate. "The government
says we have a low incidence of BSE. Yet where is the evidence that we
have a low incidence?"
Ms. Haydon also offers a good explanation as to why Canada's low-level
surveillance system is only finding cows
in Alberta. For starters, Alberta is the only province where
veterinarians have had experience looking at Chronic
Wasting Disease in elk, another notorious BSE-like disease that punches the
brain full of holes.
"They have seen the slides of brain tissue and that's why it's not
concealed," says Ms. Haydon.
Is the U.S. system any more science-based? No. An internal audit of the
USDA's mad-cow surveillance program by
the agency's inspector last fall found a failure to test the riskiest
animals, confusion among inspectors and
slaughterhouses and a failure to follow regulations.
Yet, as Ms. Haydon notes, "The Americans are telling us what to do and
we are at their mercy." And they will do
anything to protect their $70-billion industry.
The refinement of everyday thinking now strongly suggests that Canada
has a significant BSE problem. Common
sense indicates that any effective solution must involve active testing
of animals aged 24 months or older; a real
feed ban and an independent organization dedicated to food safety.
Until then, our trade-based approach to BSE will remain hopelessly
unscientific, grossly ineffective and anything
but "science-based." Andrew Nikiforuk is a Calgary journalist and author
of The Fourth Horseman: A Short History
of Plagues, Scourges and Emerging Viruses.
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