U.S. closes border to Canadian cows

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(Host) The discovery of mad cow disease in Canada has prompted a shutdown of the northern border to all imports of cattle, sheep and other ruminants. Vermont officials were notified on Tuesday. They say the border will be closed for the animal imports until further notice.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) The Canadian government says a single eight year old cow in a remote area of Alberta has tested positive for the always fatal brain disorder.

Mad cow disease belongs to a family of illnesses called transmissable spongiform encephalopathies. The disease kills its victims by forming sponge-like holes in their brains. The disease first hit England in the 1980s, and later spread to Europe. The U.S. government says this country is free of the illness.

The government moved swiftly to close the border after Canada confirmed the Alberta case. Carl Cushing is director of food safety for the Vermont Department of Agriculture.

(Cushing) “They’re going to stop everything coming in until such time as they can do some history on this and find out where, how, when and other such questions can be answered.”

(Dillon) The Alberta case is the first instance of mad cow disease in cattle born and raised in North America. Officials found one diseased animal in Canada in 1993, but that was in a cow imported from England.

Vermont farmers in the past have imported some cattle from Canadian farmers. Cushing says the import ban will probably have more impact on western states. He says he doesn’t know how many animals are brought into Vermont from Canada each year.

(Cushing) “I do not have a true number as I speak to you now, as to what kind of an impact it would have here either on beef or dairy.”

(Dillon) Mad cow disease – also known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy – is believed to spread when infected animal products were processed into feed and then fed to cattle. Tuesday’s action means Canada is now on the list of countries from which the United States will no longer accept shipments of cattle, beef products and animal feed.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the government tested 19,900 cattle last year. Cushing says the precautions have worked to keep the country free of the disease.

(Cushing) “We know at this time with all the testing in the United States that there has not been a confirmed case of BSE in the United States. And I think this measure is to try to make sure that continues.”

(Dillon) Two years ago, the federal government seized and destroyed two flocks of Vermont sheep that were suspected of carrying a version of mad cow disease. The owners maintained their animals were healthy, and they argued that the government’s tests were inconclusive.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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