Overview of the Canada and Alberta BSE Surveillance Program

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 OIE point system | Clinical information | Veterinarians in the program | The Veterinary Certification program | Recommendations for producers | Program insights


In 2004, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) announced that Canada required increasing its testing for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in order to meet national and international animal health standards, to assure food safety and to guarantee market access for our cattle and meat products in international markets.

On September 10, 2004, CFIA and Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development (ARD) jointly announced the creation of the Canada and Alberta BSE Surveillance Program (CABSESP) which focuses on animal surveillance categories with higher-risk to be more likely affected by the disease. This program rapidly became the pillar for BSE surveillance in Alberta and a role model for the rest of Canada and the world.

During the Fall of 2007, the Food Safety and Animal Health Division (FSAHD) of Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development (ARD) initiated a review of the CABSESP. Three main objectives were identified: 1) to detect gaps and inefficiencies within the administration and in the delivery of the program; 2) to improve the quality, accuracy and auditability of data, and 3) to adapt to the new guidelines established by the World Animal Health Organization (OIE) on BSE surveillance. A number of issues were detected and solutions were proposed to increase the administrative efficiency, reduce internal costs and expedite the data flow process. As a result, a series of internal changes were performed and a new program conditions document was produced defining new eligibility criteria for the CABSESP. A Veterinary Certification Program was also created to improve the quality and accuracy of data, as well as to assure that the program conditions were properly delivered.

On July 1, 2008 the new program conditions came into effect clearly defining the eligibility of producers, cattle and samples. Sampling on provincial abattoirs was eliminated. The biggest change after July 1, 2008 is represented by targeting high risk individuals, those animals whose age ranges from 30 to 107 months, which, according to science-based risk assessments, are the most likely to develop BSE.

After July 1, 2008, age verification became a challenge for certified veterinarians, since age verification by dentition was a requirement for animals from 30 to 59 months of age and proper documentation/records to verify age was a requirement for eligibility on animals 60 to 107 months. It was estimated that these changes would result in a reduction in sampling numbers of about 50%, without affecting the number of OIE points produced by Alberta, and creating significant savings for taxpayers. However, analysis conducted by the CABSESP revealed that sampling numbers were reduced more than expected. As a result, a series of surveys were conducted by the CABSESP to determine the contributing factors of this reduction. One of the major issues was the lack of proper farm records to age verify animals from 60 to 107 months, but other factors such as reduced cattle inventories, increased cull cow market prices and animals remaining longer in pasture, were also contributing factors.

Recent Changes to the CABSESP

As of November 1, 2012, the Canada and Alberta BSE Surveillance Program (CABSESP) is once again accepting all high risk cattle (down, diseased, dying or dead) older than 30 months, without any upper age limit. Also, the restriction for possession of animals for at least 30 days has been eliminated. Therefore, the CABSESP now accepts animals 30 months of age and older that are legally possessed by Alberta’s farmers falling into any of the high risk categories. The other eligibility criteria for the high risk categories remain the same.

On May 2012, the CABSESP started sampling in rendereing facilities using CFIA inspectors.

On September 15, 2011 the province decided to discontinue the incentive given to producers to allow sampling their animals and for maintaining control of the carcass pending test results. Alberta producers are now receiving $75 from the federal government (CFIA). The province continues administering the program and testing samples for BSE in the TSE Edmonton laboratory.

During early spring 2011, group cases were defined as three or more animals dying over a period of 30 days due to obvious causes, or management-associated reasons. Also, assessment for eligibility and sample collection was allowed for veterinarians on cattle owned by relatives or by business associates. Excluded in this rule are the spouse, independently of the form of cattle's ownership, as well as minor children whose parents are either the collecting veterinarian, or the spouse.

Other changes to the CABSESP as of December 2009 included accepting neurological animals of any age that are older than 30 months, post calving and post surgical cases without waiting period and, dead cases when the postmortem is not feasible to perform due to the carcass being frozen-solid, decomposed or scavenged. These cases require a good history and a brainstem sample that is in good condition and meets the eligibilty criteria.

On January 26, 2009 the CABSESP-program conditions were changed to allow certified veterinarians to determine age on eligible animals using dentition in those cases where there were no farm records available. The CABSESP developed a dentition guideline to be used in those cases when there are no accurate farm records, ear tags, or tattoos to confirm age. Click link to review this guideline.

The World Animal Health (OIE) Point System

The changes to the CABSESP respond to the need for Canada to meet the OIE requirements in BSE surveillance and to improve and increase its efficiency. The OIE implemented a point system to assess the quality of BSE surveillance conducted by member countries. In this manner, and together with testing a significant yearly number, each country also needs to earn certain number of points over a period of time. Each collected sample is assigned a point value based on the subpopulation (category) where the sampled animal came from, its age and the animal's history and clinical data. For example, a 4-year old animal exhibiting neurological signs consistent with BSE would be assigned the highest value (1,741 points); while healthy yearlings sampled at routine slaughter are much less valuable from a BSE surveillance perspective with a value of no more that 0.01 points. Since samples from a clinical suspect animal are worth more than samples from healthy animals, or those dead of unknown causes, the quality and detail of the clinical history/signs and the determination of the real age is extremely important.

Clinical Information

To accomplish the OIE requirements in terms of more and better clinical data, two steps have been performed: 1) creation of new BSE Applications Forms that reflect the changes to the program and, 2) creation of the Veterinary Certification Program. The new forms request detailed animal information, means by which age verification is assessed and more intensive and detailed clinical and postmortem information. The use of digital pictures is recommended for veterinarians to back up their assessments, specially in those cases where there is some doubt on the diagnosis. In face of these requirements, only licensed veterinarians are allowed to participate in the program when farm visits are required.

Veterinarians in the Program

The CABSESP is executed through a network of certified veterinarians licensed in Alberta, who visit the farm on the producer's request, examine the animals to determine its eligibility, perform a clinical examination on live animals, a postmortem on dead cases (with the exceptions described previously), and determine the eligibility of the animal for the program. If eligible, the brainstem is collected and delivered, together with the appropriate information to the laboratory. Collection and delivery of the sample has to be done as soon as possible, avoiding accumulation of samples for more than 2 days in the spring/summer/fall seasons, or for more than a week during winter time. The veterinarian is also responsible for communicating the laboratory results to the producer within 24 hours of receiving them, to allow for proper disposal of the carcass.

The program offers reimbursements to: 1) producers for their participation in the program by holding and securing the carcasses pending test results; and, 2) veterinarians for delivery of professional services, sample collection, delivery and provision of meaninful clinical and surveillance information. Samples are to be submitted either to the CFIA-Lethbridge laboratory, if the farm is located south of Innisfield, or to the ARD-Edmonton laboratory, if the farm is located north of Innisfield.

These practitioners visit the farm at the producer’s request,

  • Veterinarians currently participating in the program: 277
  • Veterinary clinics participating in the program: 150
  • Total veterinarians certified since 2008: 515
For more information, please visit the BSE web page from the CFIA.

The Veterinary Certification Program

The Veterinary Certification Program was created by the administration of the CABSESP in May 2008 to improve the knowledge and understanding of veterinarians in the program and to implement a consistent approach for eligibility among veterinarians in the province. The veterinary community responded to this proposal by registering almost 300 large and mixed animal practitioners licensed in Alberta. Twelve certification sessions were delivered by the CABSESP during the summer of 2008 in different cities of the province. The certification sessions involve general information on BSE, detailed explanation on the OIE point system, a deep description of the CABSESP's program conditions, understanding the veterinarian's roles and responsibilties as described in the Manual for Certified Veterinarians and discussion of different case scenarios. Veterinarians are required to attend annual re-certification updates via teleconference or webinar to retain their certification status. Subsequent upates are performed every time a change has implemented to the program, and this assures that certified veterinarians are current on the latest version of the program conditions.

The Investigations Branch of the Regulatory Services Division of ARD conducts regular audits and verification on producers and veterinarians to confirm or find more information on certain cases.

The Manual for Interpretation and Guidelines for Certified Veterinarians produced by the CABSESP is a reference document for certified veterinarians. Licensed veterinarians wishing to be certified may contact the CABSESP at 780-644-2148 to inquire for the date of the next certification session.

In 2013 the CABSESP in coordination with the University of Calgary-School of Veterinary Medicine, initiated an on-campus pre-certification session for third year veterinary students. In this session students attend the classroom component and a wet lab in a similar fashion as if they were participating in the regular certification sessions. When students graduate and receive a registration number for the Alberta Veterinary Medical Association, they are allowed to apply to to the CABSESP to become BSE certified.

Recommendations for Producers

Producers are asked to give certified veterinarians access to farm records if they need to verify the age, history and other relevant information. Also, personal and/or business information must be provided in the BSE application form in order to process payments. If a producer has a farm registered as a business, he/she must give the commercial name as it appears in the corporate registry list. If a producer is not frequently present on farm, he/she must give written authorization to one or more people who are frequently there, in order to sign on his/her behalf. For copies of the Letter of Authorization, please visit the Canada-Alberta BSE Surveillance Program

If in partnership, partners must provide the name of the person who is to receive the cheques. Before signing either application form (Non submission form, General Information Form), the producer should read the CABSESP program conditions to make sure that he/she understands the eligibility criteria, rights and responsibilities.

One of the causes for payment delays to producers corresponds to the incomplete producer information on the BSE application form. This causes pre-verification personnel at the TSE Unit to initiate a chase for missing data, sometimes with negative results. BSE applications, where missing information is not collected within a 90-day period after being received at AARD, may be cancelled. It is recommended that producers provide complete information at the time of sampling to reduce delays and cancellation of BSE applications.

Producers who think they have an eligible animal are advised to call their local veterinary clinic and ask for a CABSESP's certified veterinarian. Also, producers who would like to get copies of the National BSE Surveillance program, or the CABSESP's program conditions, or to search the world wide web to locate the closest certified veterinarian.

Program Insights

  • New graduates in veterinary medicine, as well as other veterinarians moving to Alberta are participating in two certification sessions scheduled each year.
  • The TSE Unit is in charge of receiving application forms, entering data into the system, pre-verifying information, auditing, controlling and making sure that the forms are complete to trigger payments.
  • Mapping and reporting is done with Cognos, a program that allows determination of sample distribution, follow trends in animal type, target animal category, exact location of farms, as well as performance of veterinarians in the CABSESP.
  • The CABSESP team lead by Dr. Hernan Ortegon, received the Alberta Agriculture Performance of Excellence (AAPEX) Silver Award, which is one of the highest recognitions given by AARD for outstanding team work.
  • The dynamics of the program allow participating veterinarians to provide input regarding specific conditions, to confirm or eliminate them as eligible and to tune in details of the program.
  • The number of compliance issues and audits on veterinarians fell dramatically after the July 1st 2008's changes, demonstrating that these issues were clearly identified and that proper solutions were implemented.
  • The application forms corresponding to samples tested in the ADRI lab in Lethbridge, are now being entered daily into the system by the TSE Unit in Edmonton.
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For more information about the content of this document, contact Hernan Ortegon.
This document is maintained by Ana Ulmer-Franco.
This information published to the web on November 23, 2004.
Last Reviewed/Revised on April 24, 2015.