EDMONTON - Canada's food regulator has stopped riding herd on anthrax, a disease that can kill cattle, bison, other grazing animals and, in rare cases, people.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency says it will no longer investigate and quarantine anthrax-infected farms, collect samples for testing, vaccinate livestock or oversee and help pay for the cost of disposing animals that die of the disease.
New rules that went into effect this spring say livestock producers, with the help of private veterinarians, are expected to take responsibility for preventing and dealing with anthrax.
"It is very much a business decision or a cost-benefit decision on the basis of the producer and their veterinarian," said Dr. Penny Greenwood, national manager of domestic disease control for the CFIA.
"When it is a business decision, it is really not appropriate for CFIA to be involved in the control of those diseases, as opposed to diseases that are very difficult to control."
Anthrax is caused by naturally occurring bacteria in spores in soil. The spores can become active during hot weather that follows heavy rains or flooding. Animals that ingest the spores can get sick and die very quickly. If the animal carcass isn't disposed of properly, more spores end up in the soil.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the U.S. says people can become infected with anthrax by handling products from infected animals, inhaling anthrax spores or eating undercooked meat from infected animals. The infectious disease can kill people, but the CFIA says human cases of anthrax are rare and usually mild.
The disease is most prevalent in Western Canada.
Last summer, there were anthrax cases reported in cattle and bison in Saskatchewan. In 2011, there were cases in Manitoba.
Outbreaks can be severe under certain conditions.
There were more than 800 cases of anthrax in Saskatchewan in 2006 and more than 100 in Manitoba. More than 200 wild bison died of the disease in the Northwest Territories in 2012.
Greenwood would not comment on whether federal budget cuts are behind the policy change. She noted that there have been fewer cases of anthrax recently and the disease is preventable with a readily available vaccine.
"When we look at a disease such as anthrax where we know we cannot eradicate it from Canada ... we felt that our efforts were better utilized in other areas such as emerging diseases or foreign animal disease," she said from Ottawa.
The federal government still requires producers to report anthrax cases.
Industry groups such as the Canadian Cattlemen's Association are spreading the word about the new policy to producers.
The association advised its members last week on what to do if they suspect anthrax: immediately contact a veterinarian, move surviving livestock away from infected animals and limit wildlife scavenging the carcass.
Producers are also being warned not to move a dead animal and to hire someone to pick up and dispose of the carcass.
Rob McNabb, the cattlemen group's general manager, said the beef industry will watch how the new policy unfolds.
"We will continue to monitor and, if for some reason things get out of control, then I guess we will have to revisit it," McNabb said from Calgary.
Provincial and territorial governments in Western Canada are working to develop their own anthrax programs to deal with the change.
Dr. Gerald Hauer, Alberta's chief veterinarian, said the province has sent details of a draft plan to organizations representing beef, bison, sheep and goat producers.
It includes ideas such as having Alberta pay some of the lab costs producers would face for anthrax tests and information on safe carcass disposal. A final plan is to be hammered out in coming weeks.
"We feel that anthrax is important enough that we should provide support to the producers to help them protect their herd and the (livestock) industry as a whole," Hauer said. "There is a human health component as well."
Dr. Betty Althouse, Saskatchewan's chief veterinary officer, said the province is going to cover some of the lab costs producers now face for anthrax tests and for a veterinarian to visit a farm to ensure carcasses are properly disposed of.
Althouse said proper carcass disposal is key to preventing the spread of spores.
The province is putting the finishing touches to its plan and will share the information with producers, industry groups and veterinarian clinics later this month. It will also post details on the Ministry of Agriculture website.
"It is going to be somewhat of a challenge. Saskatchewan does tend to have anthrax cases most years," she said from Regina.
"The previous CFIA controls were of assistance to producers."
On Friday, the State of North Dakota reported its first case of anthrax this year in an unvaccinated beef cow.
Manitoba's chief veterinary office is urging producers in the province to vaccinate their herds for anthrax, especially if any livestock has grazed within 10 kilometres of a previous anthrax case within the past 10 years.
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