The Canadian farm industry is facing a crisis that could quickly become as calamitous as the scourge that crippled agriculture in Britain in the Nineties. The United States, Japan, Russia and several other countries have put a temporary ban on Canadian beef. The industry has ground to a halt. Meanwhile, Canadian authorities have moved swiftly to quarantine nine other ranches where the cow may have lived. The first question investigators are struggling to answer is how the animal contracted so-called mad cow disease, otherwise know as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE. A decade ago, Canada found one animal with BSE, but it had been imported from Britain. The fear this time is that the disease was contracted on Canadian soil. If that is proven, it will be the first indigenous BSE case in North America.
For the Canadian government the incident comes on the heels of the Sars scare, which has afflicted its largest metropolis, Toronto. The city was briefly listed last month by the World Health Organisation as a place for travellers to avoid. Steakhouse chains are bracing for further fall-out as Canadians stay away from eating beef.
Above all, Canadian officials are trying to calm fears of the disease spreading to humans, as happened in Britain and Europe. "The risk to human health is low," insisted Dr Claude Levigne, a senior agriculture ministry official. About 130 people died in Europe in the Nineties, mostly in Britain, from the human version of the sickness, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.