EDMONTON – Federal officials have been sitting for 2 1/2 months on news that a second Alberta deer tested positive for chronic-wasting disease, a mad-cow variant that has forced the slaughter of thousands of elk on the Prairies, the National Post has learned.
Ray Heinen, who farms white-tail deer near Namao, Alta., confirmed yesterday that a four-year-old buck on his property tested positive for the disease in late March, raising questions as to why the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has not yet alerted the public.
Chronic-wasting disease (CWD) is a prion-based illness that eats the brain tissue of deer and elk until they die. There is no cure for it and, unlike mad-cow, it is believed to spread from animal to animal through close contact.
While there is no evidence of CWD transferring to people, all deer and elk are tested for it at slaughter because scientists are not sure of the health risk it poses to humans.
The disease is also considered a threat to wildlife because it spreads relatively quickly and is known to have infected wild deer and elk herds in the western United States.
Alberta’s most recent case came five months after another white-tail deer on Mr. Heinen’s operation died from CWD — an event that sent the already beleaguered game-farming industry into a tailspin.
It was the first farm-raised white-tail to come down with the disease in Canada after more than 100 elk in Saskatchewan were found to have it.
Food safety officials immediately ordered the slaughter and testing of close to 350 deer on Mr. Heinen’s farm, along with 95 animals identified as part of a trace-out of deer that had lived with the infected one.
Not long after the test results came back, federal investigators suggested publicly that the illness had spread no further.
On April 11, the Edmonton Journal quoted George Luterbach, a senior veterinarian with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, saying there had been no other cases of CWD on deer or elk farms in Alberta or Saskatchewan since the finding in October.
That information conflicted, however, with rumours that spread this week throughout the game-farming industry that a second animal had, in fact, been found to carry the disease.
When reached at his home yesterday, Mr. Heinen confirmed the existence of a diseased second animal, saying the result was among those obtained from his herd following the first infection.
The finding worries him, he added, because the second deer had not been exposed to any obvious source of CWD — including the other sick animal. The first infected buck found on his place belonged to another farmer in Morinville, who had leased it to him for breeding purposes. This deer was one of Mr. Heinen’s own.
“It was born on our farm, but it was in a different pen,” he said. “There was no actual physical contact [with the first positive animal]. So, if anything, I think it raises a big question mark…. How did it happen? That’s the biggest problem. They don’t know.
“These two weren’t side by side and, from what I understand, the first one wasn’t far enough advanced to even be contagious. So how could we have a second one?”
When contacted yesterday, officials with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency at first denied there had been another positive, but backtracked when it became clear the information had spread.
Jeff Meerman, a spokesman for the agency in Calgary, said the agency had intended to convey only that no other farms had been implicated in the search for CWD — not that there had not been other cases.
Privacy laws had prevented the agency from releasing further results from the Heinen farm, he added.
“Because the vets can’t give out that information, they would have said the test results are private and that you would have to ask the individual owner,” he said. “What I can tell you is that no additional premises in Alberta [had CWD cases].”
Mr. Meerman acknowledged the information is vital to both the game-farming and outdoors industries. But he said a full trace-out has been performed on animals that lived on the farm, yielding no further positives.
“The animals on that property were all depopulated, destroyed, properly disposed of and tested,” he said. “There’s no risk.”
Dr. Luterbach did not respond to requests for an interview.
Wildlife advocates voiced outrage about the secrecy surrounding the case, noting that they, too, had heard rumours of a second infected animal.
Martin Sharren, of the Alberta Fish and Game Association, said openness about CWD is vital to the outdoors industry, as well as public confidence in Canadian game meat.
“Stuff like that shouldn’t be swept under the carpet,” he said. “It makes you wonder what else is out there that we don’t know about. If my health and welfare might be at stake, I’d sure like to know.”