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OTTAWA (Reuters) - The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is considering whether to stop paying farmers to identify cattle suspected of having mad cow disease, an official with the CFIA said on Wednesday.
Freeman Libby said the proposal was part of a package designed to focus resources on other programs at the federal food safety agency, but denied it would undermine efforts to combat bovine spongiform encephalopathy.
Canada's first home-grown case of mad cow disease was discovered in 2003, forcing the CFIA to rapidly increase the number of BSE tests it carries out. One method is a reimbursement program that pays farmers C$75 ($75) to point out suspect animals. The tests involve examining brain or spinal cord tissue from the animals, which have to be put down.
"We're looking at trying to find better ways to do this, rather than having the reimbursement program. Again, that decision has not been made ... we would have no idea when that would take place," Libby told Reuters in a phone interview.
The Canwest chain of newspapers, citing an internal document, said Ottawa had decided last November to cut the program but had not yet made the news public because of the "significant communications risks" involved. Canwest said the move would save C$24 million over three years.
The first case of mad cow prompted the United States and other countries to shut their borders to Canadian beef and cattle, costing the livestock industry billions of dollars. The United States, a key market for Canadian beef, has subsequently eased its regulations, though access to other markets continues to be limited.
Canada has discovered a total of 13 cases of BSE, which it blames on contaminated feed. Canada and the United States introduced a ban in 1997 on cattle feed that contained protein from rendered cattle and other ruminants.
Ottawa has introduced a raft of measures since 2003 designed to eradicate BSE within 10 years but says it will occasionally find new cases.
Canada is deemed a "controlled risk" country for mad cow disease by the World Organization for Animal Health because of its surveillance and control measures.
"If -- and we're not saying it's going to stop -- but if we do stop (reimbursement payments) ... we'll make sure it doesn't affect our international status ranking," said Libby.
The CFIA's program to look for BSE cases will continue and "we still fully expect to get the appropriate samples from the dying or the dead or the downers (sick animals)," he added.
"The reimbursement program really wasn't intended to be an everlasting, indeterminate thing. We put that in place because we had to respond fairly quickly of course when we had the first outbreak," said Libby.
Rob McNabb, general manager of operations for the Canadian Cattlemen's Association, said he had not received an official notice about changes to the program. He said he expected farmers to continue pointing out suspect animals even if the incentive were dropped.
"We need to maintain surveillance, but probably nowhere near the level we've been doing. If the incentive is removed, (the number of samples) will gravitate toward where it needs to be," McNabb said. The number of tests for BSE jumped from 23,350 in 2004 to 57,768 in 2005, the same level that it is today.
Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton in Winnipeg; editing by Rob Wilson