First case of mad cow suspected in the U.S.

Reassurance by USDA, bans by Japan , So. Korea follow test in Wash. state

December 24, 2003|By Cyril T. Zaneski | Cyril T. Zaneski,SUN STAFF

The first suspected U.S. case of mad cow disease was discovered yesterday in Washington state, according to federal officials who scrambled to reassure consumers at home and abroad that the American food supply is safe.

Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman said the "presumptive positive" for the disease in a single Holstein at a slaughterhouse near Yakima, Wash., "is a clear indication that our surveillance-and-detection program is working." Further tests are planned to confirm the case.

Muscle cuts from the cow that is believed to be infected went from the slaughterhouse to another for further processing, federal officials said. But the tissues that would be infected by the disease -- the brain, spinal cord and other central nervous system material -- did not enter the food supply, they said.

"I plan to serve beef for my Christmas dinner," Veneman said. "We remain confident in the safety of our food supply."

Not reassured was the United States' biggest beef customer, Japan, which announced that it was halting "at least temporarily" the importation of U.S. beef.

Japan buys about $1.4 billion worth of the $2 billion in beef that the United States exports annually. Early today, South Korea, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia and Taiwan also halted imports.

Mexico, another large beef importer was expected to follow suit, as has been the response in the past to the discovery of mad cow disease elsewhere.

Mad cow disease is the nickname for bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, a progressive, fatal neurological cattle disease spread mainly by feed containing parts of infected animals. There is no treatment or vaccine.

The disease was first reported in the mid-1980s in Britain and has been reported elsewhere in Europe and Asia. The first North American case was reported in a single cow in Alberta, Canada, in May. That discovery devastated the Canadian beef industry and bolstered U.S. ranchers who stepped in to replace that country's beef on the international market. Canada supplied about 5 percent of the beef consumed in the United States before the ban.

The suspected mad cow disease in Washington is putting the $40 billion U.S. beef industry at risk at a time when cattle producers were enjoying record prices after years in the doldrums, said Bryan Dierlam, a spokesman for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. Prices for prime cuts this fall had risen about 20 percent since the Canadian beef ban.

Beef prices have also been boosted in recent months by the growing popularity of low-carbohydrate diets that feature beef and other protein foods.

"This is really coming at a very difficult time," Dierlam said. "Our producers were really turning a corner on profitability."

Despite the economic challenge the disease is likely to present, Veneman and other officials said there is no evidence that the incident had any connection to threatened terrorist attacks on the United States.

The Cattlemen's Association joined Veneman in touting "a firewall system" of BSE surveillance that the U.S. Department of Agriculture put in place in 1990 to ensure the detection of and swift response to the detection of the disease. The three-part system involves a ban on importation of high-risk animal parts such as brain and spinal cord from countries where BSE has been detected, a prohibition on possible infected parts in animal feed and rigorous testing.

The disease spread rapidly in Britain and across Europe in the mid-1980s because brain and other high-risk animal parts were commonly used in feed and there was no system of safeguards.

"I'm comfortable that we are where we are," said Terry Stokes, chief executive of the Cattlemen's Association. "I have all the confidence in the world in the inspection system in this country."

The testing of the cow in Washington was part of a U.S. Department of Agriculture effort to bolster testing for BSE. In the past year, USDA tested 20,526 cattle, triple the number the year before, Veneman said.

"The tissues that are the infectious tissues from an animal that has BSE -- that is, the central nervous system tissues, the brain, spinal cord and so forth -- of this animal did not enter the food supply," said Elsa Murano, undersecretary for food safety. "Those tissues went to rendering, so they did not enter the food supply."

The cow's meat was sent from the slaughterhouse to nearby Midway Meats, which did the deboning, she said. From there, the meat went to two other facilities in Washington state.

The Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, in a study commissioned by the USDA, reported in October that even if an infected animal were introduced into the U.S. cattle industry, the risk of spreading the disease is low based on the safeguards and controls already in place.

It is "doubtful" that there is a connection between the infected U.S. Holstein and the Canadian case, Veneman said.

Veneman said consumers should know that the disease does not spread easily.

"One of the things that people are very confused about -- and I found it as we went through the situation when Canada had a single case of BSE -- is a lot of times people don't understand that this is not foot-and-mouth disease," she said. "It's not that highly contagious disease that you often see spread so quickly as you did in [Britain] at the beginning of 2001."

Information about the case is available on the USDA Web site, www.usda.gov. The agency will also record updates at its toll-free number, 1-866-USDACOM.

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