B.C. ranches hit hard by incorrect diagnosis

An incorrect diagnosis of anaplasmosis in southern B.C. cattle herds has cost ranchers hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Joe Gardner, manager of Douglas Lake Ranch, estimates the diagnosis by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, which resulted in a and 10-month quarantine, cost the ranch $200,000.

That stems from extra costs associated with blood tests for the animals, building corrals in remote areas to hold and test the animals, extra feed and water needed during a drought and lost markets.

“We always had our doubts about the results, but we were bulldozed by bureaucracy,” said Gardner.

In 2008, a routine blood test at slaughter of a cull cow from the Douglas Lake Ranch tested positive for anaplasmosis, which is a reportable disease in Canada.

Subsequent tests at the ranch in June 2009 and nine other ranches in the Nicola Valley turned up 18 positive animals, which put about 25,000 head of cattle into quarantine for most of last winter.

It’s now believed the cattle did not have anaplasmosis, but probably tested positive for ehrlichia, a tick-borne disease likely transferred from local wildlife, said Dr. Paul Kitching, the B.C. ministry of agriculture’s chief veterinarian.

“It could be that the ticks are feeding on wildlife and cattle and transmitting organisms from the deer to the cattle. It doesn’t appear to be causing cattle any harm,” he said.

Over the 10-month quarantine, more than 14,000 cattle were tested for anaplasmosis, which has no risk to humans and little impact on cattle.

“What a fiasco that was,” said Jean Lauder, a veterinarian and Nicola Valley rancher whose family’s ranch was placed under quarantine for five months.

From the beginning, ranchers doubted the anaplasmosis diagnosis because the cattle showed no classic anemic symptoms, she said.

Kevin Boon, general manager of the British Columbia Cattlemen’s Association said the determination of the ranchers forced the CFIA to retest the animals and eventually lift the quarantine in March.

“The tests weren’t right 99 percent of time, they were wrong 100 percent of the time,” said Boon, of Kamloops.

Susan Schenkeveld, a B.C. CFIA regional director, said the agency used an internationally recognized test. While the animals tested positive for the disease, they had no clinical signs, which led to more investigation, she said.

“At this time we can’t confirm the presence of anaplasmosis. We’re still trying to figure out what led to the unusual level of test result.”

Lauder said when their cow number 11 came back with a positive result, CFIA wanted to retest the five cows in line after it in the chute to make sure there was no contamination.

When all six of those samples came back negative, CFIA officials wouldn’t believe the results and accused the ranch of switching cattle. The CFIA wanted another round of tests and photographs of the animals, she said.

“They insinuated we must have substituted the cow.”

Lauder said when she was called to resample three cows from a neigh-bouring ranch, she insisted on a double blind test to ensure there was no mix up in the laboratory. Those too came back negative.

Under the Health of Animals Act, compensation is paid only for slaughtered animals, not for loss of income caused by a quarantined herd, extra feed costs or extra labour costs to test animals in quarantine.

Boon said the CFIA acted unreasonably by forcing ranches into the added expense and hassle of testing the cattle, even feeder cattle that were destined for a feedlot.

He said the BCCA would apply to the federal AgriRecovery program to regain lost income and hasn’t ruled out court action because of the quarantine from a wrong diagnosis.

“I could foresee very well taking CFIA to court,” said Boon.

“They deem themselves the protector of our animals. They consider themselves a god-like agency.”

Roland Baumann, chair of the BCCA said the heavy-handed approach by CFIA has turned many producers against it.

“At the moment we see the CFIA as our enemy,” said Bauman.

Schenkeveld said it was a difficult time, but she is pleased with the co-operation of the ranchers.

“I am not focused on what kind of relationship we have. I am focused on communication and doing the best we can. We’re still beavering away at the research to give them more information,” she said.

Of the 18 cases, 14 animals were slaughtered and compensation paid.

Boon hopes this case speeds up the change in status of anaplasmosis, from a reportable to a less urgent notifiable disease classification.

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