Ranchers with cattle herds in quarantine travelled to Ottawa Nov. 21 to give a briefing scheduled the following day to the federal agriculture committee.
Brad Osadszuk, owner of the cow initially confirmed with bovine tuberculosis, and others were invited by the committee to brief members on the situation in southeastern Alberta that now has 36 ranches in quarantine to contain spread of the illness.
Five more cattle infected with bovine tuberculosis have been found in southeastern Alberta since the first one was identified, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency confirmed Nov. 18.
The five are from the same group as the first cow found with the disease, which was discovered in September after it had been shipped to the United States for slaughter.
Dr. Penny Greenwood, national manager for domestic disease control with the CFIA, said the new positive cases show there has been transmission of TB from animal to animal.
“These positive test results indicate transmission between animals has occurred. The CFIA is currently conducting a risk assessment to determine how these results impact the investigation and whether or not additional herds may be declared infected,” she said.
Rich Smith, executive director of the Alberta Beef Producers, said discovery of additional cases was not necessarily as surprise, given that it is an infectious disease.
“The fact that there has been transmission of it isn’t good news,” he said Nov. 21.
“First we were hoping that there wasn’t any transmission. Now we’re hoping that its minimal. It would be really good if these were the last animals that were found” with TB.
Greenwood said the new cases have no effect on food safety, nor do they represent any impact on cattle or beef trade.
The 36 ranches quarantined, 34 in Alberta and two in Saskatchewan, comprise an estimated 18,000 animals.
The infected cows are on three different premises because they were commingled in pastures in the Jenner, Brooks and Suffield regions of Alberta.
The Saskatchewan ranches had cattle adjacent to those in Alberta and were thus included in the quarantine. No Saskatchewan cattle have tested positive.
Greenwood confirmed that the strain of TB in the first cow is related to a strain seen in Mexico and it has not been seen before in Alberta. Results of genetic tests on TB strains that affected the other five infected animals have yet to be analyzed.
The source of the infection thus remains unknown.
More than 50 CFIA staff are now involved in the response and testing of the quarantined herds, with priority given to the source herd and trace outs, Greenwood said.
She added the testing is expected to take months.
The Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, ABP and other groups are working to set up a feedlot where calves from the quarantined cow herds could be fed over winter. Many of the ranchers involved in the quarantine habitually wean and sell the calf crop each fall and do not have the facilities, feed or in some cases, water, to overwinter double their usual number of animals.
Greenwood said the province and Agriculture Canada are also looking at options to help producers with access to water and feed for their livestock to get them through the quarantine period.
Some ranchers have questioned whether the large wild elk herd that frequents Canadian Forces Base Suffield, which is in the same area, may have spread the TB.
Greenwood said bovine tuberculosis favours cattle, so elk are “an abnormal host” for the disease. That said, she added a dense elk population could be a low-level reservoir for TB, as has happened at Riding Mountain National Park in Manitoba.
Given that the TB strain so far identified is from Mexico, Greenwood said the CFIA will be considering the ways it entered Canada, be it wildlife, imported cattle or humans.
Drew Barnes, the Wildrose MLA for Cypress-Medicine Hat, said Nov. 21 that he had found “tremendous empathy” among his constituents for the plight of ranchers with herds in quarantine.
“They know what a hardship this can be and they’re certainly hoping and cheering for things to go well.”
He said he is also hearing concern about the wild elk herd in the region and speculation about any connection between elk and spread of bovine TB.
“People everywhere in Medicine Hat and southeastern Alberta know that the provincial government has not managed that elk herd in the way it should have been,” said Barnes.
Alf Belyea, a Cypress County councillor from the Jenner region, where the initial TB-infected cow originated, agreed people are pointing fingers at the elk herd but there is no proof that it is the source.