02/13/2015 07:57 EST | Updated 04/15/2015 05:59 EDT

Mad Cow Disease Case In Alberta Confirmed By CFIA

EDMONTON - Mad cow disease has been confirmed in a beef cow on an Alberta farm, but the federal agriculture minister says the discovery won't affect Canada's international beef trade.

"We don't change from our controlled risk status ... so we don't see this interfering with any of our trade corridors at this time," Gerry Ritz said Friday after the Canadian Food Inspection Agency confirmed the case.

Canada works under international protocols that allow for up to a dozen cases a year of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, Ritz said in Calgary.

"We have stayed well below that."

Alberta did initial testing on the cow and Ottawa was informed a few days ago, Ritz said. The CFIA followed up with further tests.

The agency said no part of the animal's carcass entered the human food or animal feed systems.

It's the first case to be reported in Canada since 2011 when a six-year-old dairy cow tested positive.

Ritz said the infected animal was not born on the farm where it was discovered.

The CFIA said it is working to confirm the cow's history and how it became infected. It will focus on feed supplied to the animal in the first year of its life.

One key question is how old the animal was.

"That investigation is just underway and we are not yet in a position to confirm an animal age," Paul Mayers, a CFIA vice-president, said from Ottawa.

Canada continues to be designated a "controlled BSE risk" country by the World Organisation for Animal Health.

To move up to "negligible BSE risk" — the same designation as the United States, Australia and other major beef producers — there can be no BSE in domestic animals born in the last 11 years in Canada.

The earliest Canada could qualify would be next year, but only if the latest sick cow turns out to be 11 or older.

Mayers said other questions include how many other cattle the BSE cow was in contact with and at how many farms. He said the cattle herd at the Alberta farm is not large, but it's not yet known where the cow lived over its lifetime.

Any cattle that came into contact with the same feed or the infected cow when it was young will be destroyed, he said.

Doug Gillespie, president of the Saskatchewan Stock Growers Association, said the new case isn't surprising.

"They expect to find one of these from time to time ... It really shows our system is working, that beef is safe," he said from his farm near Swift Current.

BSE is a fatal and untreatable wasting disease of the brain and nervous systems and is caused by rogue proteins called prions.

Humans who eat infected beef can develop a fatal disease called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Fewer than 250 human cases have been reported worldwide.

Canada's first known case of BSE was discovered in 1993 in a cow from a farm near Red Deer, Alta. The animal had been imported from Britain.

The first instance of BSE in a Canadian-born beef cow was in May 2003, also in Alberta. It's suspected that animal became infected through contaminated animal feed that contained a protein supplement made with ground meat and bone meal.

That case devastated Canada's beef industry. About 40 markets immediately closed their borders to Canadian cattle and beef products, although many of those markets have since reopened.

The year before the crisis, Canada exported 518,000 tonnes of beef products worth $2.1 billion. In 2014, Agriculture Canada said the numbers were 317,000 tonnes worth $1.9 billion.

John Masswohl of the Canadian Cattlemen's Association said the new case should not have much of an effect on the beef trade.

"Very minimal, if any. We don't expect much impact from this on the international side," Masswohl said from Ottawa.

Testing of cattle was strengthened following the mad cow crisis and specified risk materials, such as brains and spinal columns, were banned for use in feed and other products.

— With files from Bill Graveland in Calgary.