BSE: effect of devastating discovery lingers

Cattle industry collapse | CFIA researcher says confirming Canada’s first case in 2003 was gut-wrenching

Dr. Stephanie Czub has had one of the loneliest experiences in agriculture.

She diagnosed the bovine brain sample that confirmed Canada’s first homegrown case of BSE in 2003, which dealt crippling blows to the cattle industry from which it has arguably yet to recover.

Czub talked about her experience last week as part of a public lecture tour with keynote speaker Jay Ingram, former radio and television show host and author of Fatal Flaws: How a Misfolded Protein Baffled Scientists and Changed the Way We Look at the Brain.

In 2003, Czub was working at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s Winnipeg laboratory.

On the Saturday of the May long weekend, she was one of few people working in the dark, quiet building while she waited for the brain sample to arrive.

She and others in the CFIA had their suspicions about what the sample would reveal, and Czub said her supervisor, in an attempt to bolster her spirits, asked her to remember she was not alone on the case.

The sample from the Alberta cow arrived. It took her about 12 hours to prepare the tissue. Then she put the slide under the microscope.

“When I was sitting there at midnight, realizing and acknowledging I saw what I saw, that this has to be called mad cow disease … it was the first home grown Canadian case of BSE, I felt pretty lonely. I felt like the loneliest one-man band you can imagine,” she told the group assembled at Lethbridge College.

Only two years earlier, Czub had come to Canada from Europe, where BSE had caused massive cattle culls and sickened many people with the human equivalent of BSE called Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

“I knew exactly what would happen to the industry, to the farmer. And sure enough, 15 minutes the following morning, (after) the first press conference, 35 countries closed the border for Canadian beef and $9 billion later, this is where we are.”

Canada has since diagnosed 18 cases of BSE, 16 of them the classical form thought to be caused by feeding infected bovine material to cattle.

The other two were atypical cases with an unknown cause, thought to be unconnected to feed.

One case of BSE in Washington state was also linked to a Canadian source, which brings the total to 19, Czub said.

Canadian cattle producers have long speculated on the lack of BSE cases discovered in the United States, given similar North American feeding practices and cattle importation.

“Why indeed,” said Czub in a later interview.

“When you look at the European Union, 27 countries, their BSE surveillance numbers from last year were around 12 million animals. Canada does around 60,000 and the U.S. does around 60,000 as well,” she said, despite the fact that the U.S. herd is 10 times larger than Canada’s.

“The answer is pretty obvious.”

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