Questions Over Scrapie Testing Protocol Raised During Ontario Sheep Rustling Trial

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Adherence to testing protocols for scrapie and correct identification of an animal have been called into question during a court case involving individuals who are charged with taking and hiding quarantined heritage breed sheep destined to be destroyed as part of Canada’s scrapie eradication program.

The protocols and identification in question stem from a 2009 positive scrapie test attributed a ewe at an Alberta-based farm. The ewe was born in Ontario, at the farm of Linda “Montana” Jones.

Scrapie is a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy of sheep, in the same family as BSE of cattle and CWD of elk and deer, and is a reportable disease in Canada.

Jones, and raw-milk advocate Michael Schmidt, are currently facing charges for their role in moving and concealing sheep under Canadian Food Inspection Agency quarantine in 2012. A third party, Suzanne Atkinson, a former ag reporter from Ontario, earlier pleaded guilty for her role in moving the quarantined sheep from Jones’s farm to Schmidt’s. Robert Pinnell is also charged in the proceedings.

Related: “Missing Sheep Case Draws to a Close” via the National Post

The pre-trial hearings began this week, and several documents brought forward spurred defense attorney Shawn Buckley to send a lengthy email to crown attorney. Real Agriculture has received a copy of this email, included the documents in question.

At issue is a written report, dated January, 2011, by then-CFIA investigator Mark Murdoch (now retired), which calls into question the validity of the original scrapie test in 2009. In the report, Murdoch states that the sampling was done by the farmer, not a vet, and that proper protocols can’t be verified. What’s more, Murdoch points to evidence that the chain of custody of the sample could not be verified; the sample arrived at the final lab destination in a different container from what the original sample was collected in.

The defense says, in the email to the prosecution team, that the original positive scrapie test stems from a U.S-sourced ram and not the ewe born on Jones’s farm at all. If that’s the case, the original quarantine placed on Jones’s farm in 2010 shouldn’t have happened. That quarantine is said to have led to a “false positive” of another of Jones’s ewes in 2012, according to Jones. At that time, the vet was called for a pregnant ewe in distress, but not exhibiting signs of scrapie. The ewe died and was tested for the disease, and was found to be positive, according to the CFIA. Jones contends the sheep did not have scrapie and has tried to verify the positive using a third-party lab.

The defense for Jones and Schmidt has requested reports and paperwork concerning the case that it says the CFIA has but has not released to the defense. The judge sided with the defense this week and has ordered the CFIA to hand over the requested documents. The pre-trial hearing is now stayed until late April, 2015.

CFIA offers the following information regarding scrapie testing. There are two ways samples may be collected:

1) Samples from on-farm deadstock for scrapie surveillance testing may be collected and submitted by a producer, veterinarian or CFIA inspector.
2) Samples from on-farm scrapie suspects (animals identified as having clinical signs compatible with scrapie) or from animals ordered destroyed due to risk of exposure to scrapie must be collected by a CFIA inspector.
CFIA also states, in an email to Real Agriculture, that the “goal of the scrapie surveillance program is to identify infected animals, so that steps can be taken to eradicate the disease from Canada.” Those steps are as follows.
When scrapie is suspected, the premises are immediately placed under quarantine, the suspected animal is ordered destroyed and its brain and lymphoid tissues are tested by the OIE (World Organization for Animal Health) Reference Laboratory for Scrapie in Canada.  Scrapie is then either confirmed or ruled out.

If scrapie is confirmed on a premises via CFIA approved testing, the Agency carries out an extensive investigation which involves:

  • determining the premises where the infected animal could have contracted the disease
  • determining on which premises the infected animal could have spread the disease
  • determining which animals on those premises are at a high risk of developing scrapie, and
  • ordering their destruction

Real Agriculture was told a CFIA spokesperson would not be made available on the topic of Mark Murdoch’s 2011 report.

For more information on scrapie surveillance in Canada, follow this link.

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