Fears that relatively harmless strains of avian influenza could mutate into something worse, or give other countries reasons to block Canadian meat, have led Canada to formally declare the diseases as "reportable."
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency on Wednesday said it will now apply the designation to the relatively common low-pathogenicity ("low-path") H5 and H7 strains of avian flu, which cause few or no visible signs of illness in infected birds.
The designation -- which already applies to the "high-path" bird flus causing severe illnesses and deaths in birds, and to high-profile livestock diseases such as BSE, scrapie and anthrax -- requires all suspected or confirmed cases of low-path H5 and H7 flus to be reported to the CFIA.
From the poultry producer's perspective, the upgrading of low-path H5 and H7 flus to reportable diseases means that if farmers fail to report suspected cases, they could be denied compensation for animals or anything destroyed or for costs they incur in a disease outbreak.
The CFIA noted it already responds in full force to low-path avian flu outbreaks in Canadian poultry, to eliminate the disease on infected farms before the strains can mutate into high-path outbreaks.
Thus, the amended rules "formalize Canada's current approach to controlling avian influenza" but don't really change the agency's response, it said.
The World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) previously updated its notification requirements to make low-path H5 and H7 avian flus notifiable diseases along with the high-path strains.
Canada's "non-compliance" with those new OIE standards "could be viewed by trading partners as the absence of regulatory control over (low-path avian flus) in Canada," the federal government said in a regulatory impact statement issued Wednesday.
"This view has already been expressed by the European Commission in their 2009 evaluation of Canadian health controls for poultry and poultry products destined for export to the European Union."
Therefore, the government said, Canada could be at risk of losing export shares in the market for poultry and poultry products if it doesn't also move to add low-path avian flus to its reportable disease regulations.
"Though the prevalence and distribution of (avian flu) is difficult to determine, sporadic and infrequent outbreaks in domestic poultry occur worldwide, making this a disease of international concern," the government said.
Canada's hardest-hitting outbreak of AI in poultry was in 2004 in B.C.'s Fraser Valley, where it caused economic losses estimated at more than $300 million.
Isolated cases of low-path strains, by comparison, have been reported in Canada since 1960. Canada's most recent outbreak of low-path avian flu was an H5N2 strain on some farms in Manitoba's southern Interlake region in November 2010.