Contrary to what some in the industry say, the United States and Canada test proportionate levels of high-risk cattle (older, nonambulatory and those animals showing neurological symptoms) for bovine spongiform encephalopathy, according to figures from both the USDA and Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
On Thursday, R-CALF accused Canada of reducing the average number of BSE testing during the first three months of 2005 by 28% compared to testing figures in December. A statement from the group says the decrease is "making it impossible to monitor the effectiveness of Canadaâ€™s BSE risk-mitigation measures."
The word prevalence has been tossed around as a reason for the ramped up testing measures that both the United States and Canada undertook in 2004. Prior to a BSE finding, surveillance testing was being done to detect BSE. But as CFIA Acting Senior Staff Veterinarian Dr. Gary Little explains, North America is no longer testing to detect the disease, but instead testing is done to determine how well current mitigation measures are working.
"There is an error in people's thinking to be focusing on the 'prevalence'. That is nice to have, not a need to have," Little says. "You need to have specified risk materials removed and have an effective ruminant-to-ruminant feed ban. Those are two things for how we manage disease."
A look at testing numbers
The chart below shows the percent of cattle slaughtered each month that were tested for BSE in relation to the total number of cattle slaughtered each month. Canada saw a sharp increase in October. Little explains that a combination of cattle coming off summer pastures, an aggressive education campaign and a reimbursement program that rewarded farmers for reporting downer or dead cattle all may have played into the testing surge.
Granted, the percent of Canadian cattle slaughter tested for BSE during the first three months of 2005 is lower than it was in late 2004. However, in early 2005 Canada still tested a higher percentage of its slaughter than in any month prior to November 2004.
When the United States announced it's advanced testing program in 2004, it had a goal of testing at least 268,500 cattle. The enhanced program could detect BSE even if there were only five positive animals in the entire country. So far since June 1, 2004 when the U.S. began the enhanced surveillance program, 330,839 cattle have been tested.
When looking at Canadian testing, one may think our northern neighbors are testing far fewer than the U.S. But when comparing U.S. cattle herd numbers to Canada there is an 8 to 1 ratio. For 2004, Canada had a goal of testing 20,000 animals and ended up testing 23,550 cattle. For 2005, the goal was 30,000 high-risk animals. Already in the first four months of the year CFIA reports the agency has tested 21,347.
In addition, the bulk of BSE tests of high-risk animals. Little explains that in relation to the total cattle herd, Canada's high-risk animals represent about 1.3% or about 80,000 cattle. The U.S. has a slightly lower percent of high-risk animals in its herd, just over 1% or 440,000 cattle.
So as you compare the total tested to total high-risk animals the percentage of cattle the surveillance system is capturing is very high in both the U.S. and Canada.
Meeting OIE standards
R-CALF USA CEO Bill Bullard says that the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) will not allow countries with a BSE prevalence rate of two cases per million head of native cattle to be classified as 'minimal BSE risk.'
Testing 30,000 cattle per year would be able to detect one BSE case in a million. But R-CALF claims that since "Canada has not yet tested this many cattle per year, and yet four cases have been detected under far less testing. This suggests a BSE prevalence rate significantly higher than 1 per million."
"Even if a country met all of the other OIE criteria for â€˜minimal BSE riskâ€™ status, a country must also have found its BSE prevalence rate to be less than two cases per million head during each of the last four consecutive 12-month periods to qualify as a â€˜minimal BSE risk,â€™" Bullard points out.
Little however says that Canada's incidence level is less than two cases per million cattle. He figures that by using the OIE incidence rate in adult cattle, in 2003 Canada had 0.33 cases per million and in 2004 the figure was 0.149 cases per million.
R-CALF is fighting for Canada to begin testing hundreds of thousands of cattle on an annual basis, "rather than the mere tens of thousands Canada is proposing â€“ as the only means by which Canada can conclude that its prevalence rate is not as high as those of countries considered to have a serious BSE problem," Bullard says. "Until â€“ and unless â€“ Canada begins a statistically meaningful BSE surveillance program, every country will lack crucial scientific data needed to assess the risk of accepting beef and cattle from Canada."
But as the figures show from both the USDA and CFIA, science does back the basis for testing and the United States.
John Otte, Economics Editor, contributed to this article.