Canadians have shown few signs of the European hysteria over beef and mad cow disease. “Nobody’s said a word about it,” said Greg Stewart, owner of Jake’s Steakhouse & Pub in Saint John, N.B. “Our last couple of weeks have been some of the best ever.” In contrast with Europeans, Canadians seem to have little to worry about. To begin with, there is no mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), in Canadian cattle, says Graham Clarke, chief of red meat inspection at Agriculture Canada. And Canada has never imported British beef, he says. “That’s because it has to come from a slaughter plant that’s approved by Canada for export to Canada, and they don’t have any in Britain.” Nor does Canada allow in the contaminated high-protein feed, made from sheep parts, that is widely believed to have caused the British outbreak. Live-cattle imports were banned in 1990. Even British specialty items such as meat pies or canned stews must use beef imported
from other countries sanctioned by Canada. “The best take-home message is there’s no BSE here,” says Dr. Jamie Hockin, an epidemiologist with Health Canada. "A steak is a non-issue, a sausage is a non-issue."
Less clear-cut is the case of beef-derived gelatin, which is used as a thickening agent in a wide range of common household goods, including cosmetics, candy and medicines. Gelatin is made by extracting a protein called collagen from beef bone and skin and then boiling it. When the European Union last week imposed a worldwide ban on exports of British beef, live cattle, sperm and embryos, it also stopped the flow of food and manufactured products containing beef byproducts. Hockin says his department is now re-evaluating what risk these highly processed gelatin-containing goods might pose. “The risk, if any, must be minimal," Hockin says. “Current wisdom is that these products are safe.” Nevertheless, Marks & Spencer Canada said its 50 stores would as a precaution remove 11 sorts of candies, cakes and biscuits containing beef-based gelatin.
There are, of course, no absolutes, given the scientific confusion over how mad cow disease is spread. Since 1989, British cattle carcasses have had their brains and other neurological parts discarded because the suspected cause of BSE—a little-understood protein particle called a prion—resides in the animal’s nervous system. Even so, says David Waltner-Toews, a veterinary epidemiologist at the University of Guelph, other parts of the animal could still be contaminated in the messy process of slaughtering and packing. “The problem with all of this,” he says, “is the really high level of uncertainty.”
Canada’s lone brush with BSE came in November,
993, when an Alberta rancher killed a cow he had imported from Britain in 1987. It was diagnosed with BSE, the only such case to date in North America. As a precaution, agriculture officials slaughtered and incinerated the entire herd of more than 200 animals, then ordered the destruction of all 175 British cattle imported into Canada between 1982 and 1990. Those moves, controversial at the time, were last week being hailed as the height of wisdom.
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