A laboratory, a microscope, a scientist and a slice of bovine brain that would change the world.
That’s how the BSE crisis began May 20, 2003.
Dr. Stefanie Czub of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency confirmed Canada’s first homegrown case of the cattle disease at midnight in Winnipeg’s National Centre for Foreign Animal Disease. She knew what it would mean, having seen its effects first hand in Germany.
“The message from Ottawa was, to me for reassurance, ‘you are not alone,’ ”she said.
“But when I was sitting there behind my microscope and making the call, I felt pretty lonely because I immediately realized what this would have, the impact on the farmer. I very vividly remembered what the impact of this first case was (in Europe), and sure enough, the same was true for Canada, too.”
Within days, 30 countries closed their borders to Canadian cattle and beef, as well as other livestock and meat.
Ten years later, the cattle industry has yet to fully recover.
Looking back, Czub said the greatest general misconception about the confirmed Canadian case at the time was that international borders would reopen after only a short delay.
Instead, it has taken years, with some countries still closed to live animals and meat from older ones. Scattered along the past decade are failed cattle operations, fewer feedlots, scrapped processing plants and an estimated $9 billion in industry losses.
The BSE crisis was the impetus for herd traceability, forced the removal of specified risk materials from every carcass and spawned country-of-origin labelling in the United States, which plagues the industry to this day.
In the past 10 years, Canada has detected 18 cases of BSE in cattle. A 19th case was found in an Alberta-born cow that had moved to Washington.
The last domestic case was detected in February 2011.
Czub said evidence points to contaminated feed as the cause, and several trace outs led to one feed mill in central Alberta.
Canada had imposed a stricter ban in 1997 on feed containing meat, blood and bone meal. BSE cases in animals born after 1997 are thought to be the result of accidental or deliberate use of banned feed, small amounts of infected feed mixed into new batches or poor enforcement of the regulations before the ban was extended.
Czub said the drastic global reduction in BSE cases after feed bans were implemented in Canada and around the world shows contaminated feed is the likely cause of classical forms of the disease.
Last year, there were 13 new BSE cases worldwide. At the peak of the disease in Great Britain, there were 35,000 cases in one year, Czub said.
But if feed is the cause, why is only one infected animal ever discovered in affected herds, as has always been the case in Canada?
“For the scientific community, there are so many open questions and that is one of them,” she said.
“It’s still super puzzling that it is really a single animal disease. It’s very rare that you have more than one case in a herd.”
Czub has studied BSE throughout the past decade, with generous funding from federal and provincial governments and cattle industry organizations.
“We have learned a lot and we did enormous leaps as well, so I think, funny as it sounds, it’s a success story the way Canada handled the BSE crisis. But a lot of people paid a high, high price.”