Canada defends handling of mad cow probe
Initial tests of diseased cow's herd find no more cases
OTTAWA, Canada (CNN) -- Canadian officials defended their country's handling of a probe into mad cow disease Monday, while additional animals were being slaughtered and hundreds of farms investigated.
The trail of an 8-year-old cow infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, has led Canadian health officials to slaughter nearly 200 animals in addition to the 192 from the original cow's herd, Brian Evans of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency said Monday.
Tainted feed remains the most likely source of infection, Evans said, though "spontaneous infection" from grazing or an unknown source remains a possibility.
The number of farms under quarantine has grown to 17, and more than 200 farms are being checked to make sure they comply with feeding regulations, Evans said. Although protein rendered from ruminants -- animals with four stomachs -- is fed to pigs and chickens, which are not believed susceptible to BSE, since 1996 Canada has banned the feeding of ruminants to other ruminants.
The sickly cow was pulled from a production line and killed in January at a slaughterhouse in Alberta. Because its meat was not mixed with meat headed for grocery stores and restaurants, health officials did not test the remains for mad cow disease until last week.
The bulk of the carcass was rendered in January and used as a supplement for chicken feed, health officials said.
As the scope of the investigation grew, Alberta Premier Ralph Klein scolded critics of Canada's handling of the situation, and said he did not consider it "a crisis."
"I'm not glossing over it," he added, "but I emphasize, we're still only talking about one diseased cow in a total cattle population of 5.2 million cows in Alberta. There's no evidence this has spread or that the human food supply has been threatened in any way."
News that Canada had its first case of BSE in 10 years prompted many of the countries that import Canadian beef -- including the United States, its largest customer -- to temporarily ban its import. The United States typically buys a million head of live cattle and a billion pounds of beef from Canada each year.
Friday, U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat, criticized the fact that it took four months for the diseased cow's brain to be tested. Dorgan is a member of the Senate Agriculture Appropriations subcommittee.
"I don't want to make more of this or less of this than warranted," he said. "But a severed cow head [sitting] on a cool shelf for months before it's tested is not a good system."
Klein fired back Monday. "Notwithstanding Senator Dorgan's remarks that there was an undue delay, I understand it was a normal procedure done under normal circumstances," he said. "We think the systems in place have worked well, but if there are lessons to be learned, we'll take those lessons to heart.
"The animal that was diseased was taken immediately out of the human food chain," added Klein, who praised Canadian health officials for speed and thoroughness. "If they had that tracking system relative to tracking down terrorists, I think they'd be caught a long time ago."
Meanwhile, the first round of tests last weekend on the sick cow's herd found no other infected animals, Evans said.
But those results might not be as significant as they first appear. It generally takes several years for symptoms of BSE to appear, and because the sick animal had been with the herd only about a year, it's highly likely that it had become infected while in another herd.
The investigation has attempted to trace the cow's whereabouts since birth. The disease cannot be transmitted from cow to cow, but animals thought to have shared the same feed would be suspect.
Until the cow's full history is known, anxious politicians have little cause for comfort.
"It goes without saying the economic impact is very serious indeed, but there's not much we can do until the full investigation is complete," Klein said Monday. "What we can do is tell Canadians and Albertans: Eat beef."