Despite early hiccups, TB investigation did the job

With the investigation into 2016’s bovine tuberculosis outbreak in Alberta finally over, it’s important to stress what was learned from one of the most complex investigations the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has ever conducted.

The discovery of one infected cow by a U.S. slaughter facility in September 2016 launched a process that would see 58 premises and 28,000 animals quarantined, some 30,000 animals tested and about 11,500 cattle destroyed. The investigation triggered about $54 million in compensation for animals that were destroyed and costs related to quarantines.

The quarantines hit hard because they came at a time of year when cattle would normally be sent to market, generating income. Quarantined farms saw no money coming in, and the financial burden on ranchers was intensified by the cost of caring for cattle on farms that did not have the facilities to maintain so many animals.

The investigation involved about 120 CFIA personnel, but that level of staffing wasn’t reached until farmers decried the slow pace of testing.

Some thought the CFIA didn’t recognize what it was up against when the investigation started. At one point Canadian Cattlemen’s Association vice-president Bob Lowe chided that “there shouldn’t be a vet in Alberta that’s not testing cattle.”

The CFIA said procedures required specialized tests that could take up to 14 weeks.

Herds with decades of legacy genetics were wiped out, and some ranchers at first did not know what was going to happen. There was a compensation program in place for cattle ordered destroyed but not for caring for animals under quarantine.

Rancher Brad Osadczuk, whose herd was destroyed after the six infected animals were found on his farm, said caring for 400 cattle that would normally have been sent to market cost $92,000 a month.

Eventually, government programs kicked in, allowing farmers to find ways to deal with the extra costs.

And the procedures used by the CFIA were effective, even if testing was slow at first because of the size and complexity of the investigation. Commingling of herds on community pastures — a necessity when raising cattle on southeastern Alberta’s dry pastures — meant tracing the history of the animals was complicated. The CFIA said contacting some farmers and finding out where the cattle were took longer than expected. The agency said ear tags were missing on many animals, and officials had to look at movement over the previous five years.

New traceability rules are expected in the fall to help address this.

As well, in the early stages of the investigation, the CFIA — which is notorious for its lack of communication — was true to form. So rumours spread: Were domestic animals going to be destroyed? Would there be compensation for quarantines? And how long would quarantines last?

The CCA and the Alberta Beef Producers got going. Lowe and the ABPs’ Karin Schmid helped to bridge the communications gap until the CFIA picked it up.

And Osadczuk proved to be an effective communicator. It’s worth noting that he felt the other ranchers were supportive when TB was first found in one of his animals.

Still, even as compensation began coming, farmers were concerned that they would be taxed on the funds because they couldn’t spend the money fast enough to replenish their herds. Sensibly, tax deferrals were eventually granted.

Ultimately, despite the difficulties, we saw that Canada has a good protection system and that TB gets addressed with effectice procedures, allowing Canada to remain officially designated TB free.

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