Mad cow infection linked to Canada

Sick Holstein entered U.S. from Alberta, but its age is subject of disagreement

Officials seeking others in herd

December 28, 2003|By David Willman and Jube Shiver | David Willman and Jube Shiver,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - Federal agriculture officials said yesterday that they had traced a Holstein infected with mad cow disease in southeastern Washington state to a herd of 74 dairy cows brought to the United States more than two years ago from Alberta, Canada.

"That's most likely where she became infected," said Dr. Ronald DeHaven, chief veterinarian for the Department of Agriculture, who added that officials were working with cattlemen to locate the other 73 cows.

But a disagreement flared between the Americans and Canadians regarding the age of the Holstein - and in which of the two countries the animal most likely acquired mad cow disease. Canadian authorities said their records showed that the Holstein was about 6 1/2 years old, while the U.S. officials, citing documentation maintained by owners of the cow, placed the age at closer to 4 years.

The cow's age is important because in 1997 both nations banned cattle feed that contains bone meal from other animals, which is how mad cow disease has commonly been spread. If the infected animal was closer to 4 years old, it would strongly indicate that the Holstein ingested feed that had been outlawed several years earlier.

Dr. Brian Evans, chief veterinary officer of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, said yesterday that the infected cow's origins remain unconfirmed. Addressing reporters in Ottawa, he warned against "a premature conclusion that the definitive animal or definitive birth place has been located."

"I don't think anybody should read this as tarnishing Canada as a mad cow haven," he said.

In May, a cow in Alberta was found to have mad cow disease, and Canadian authorities have yet to identify the source of its infection.

Using DNA testing, U.S. agriculture officials hope to conclusively establish the Holstein's age, perhaps within the next week.

While the U.S. officials played down any risk to consumers, they also announced that they would continue recalling from stores in California, Nevada, Oregon and Washington any unsold beef from the infected cow and other cattle that were slaughtered and processed Dec. 9 at a plant in Moses Lake, Wash.

"We will leave no stone unturned in this investigation," DeHaven said. Mad cow disease is a public health concern because humans who eat infected beef can develop a brain-wasting disorder called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Once acquired, the disease is fatal. In Britain, 143 people died after mad cow disease surfaced in the 1980s.

DeHaven and other officials did not immediately identify the stores that may have bought the beef subject to the continuing recall. They said the recall applied to about 10,000 pounds of meat taken from 20 animals, including the infected cow, that were slaughtered at the plant Dec. 9.

The officials said that sellers of the meat began notifying affected retail stores on Christmas Eve.

"I expect that over the next several days we will start to get a handle on the exact amount that is being retrieved," said Dr. Ken Peterson of the Agriculture Department's food and safety inspection service.

DeHaven and Peterson emphasized that they thought the chance is low that any consumer would contract the human variant of mad cow disease from the infected Holstein because, they said, the beef that was processed did not include brain or spinal-cord material. And they referred to available scientific evidence that indicates mad cow disease is not transmitted to humans through milk or other dairy products.

DeHaven said "the infectious agent goes primarily to central nervous system tissues," such as the spinal cord or brain. The U.S. officials have said that the packing plant in Washington state kept the meat separate from the spinal and brain material.

DeHaven said U.S. officials thought that the infected Holstein entered the United States from Canada in August 2001 at Eastport, Idaho.

"These animals were all dairy cattle and entered the U.S. only about 2 or 2 1/2 years ago, so most of them are still likely alive," DeHaven said.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Cow's history

Between 1997 and 1999: Born in Alberta, Canada.

August 2001: Enters United States in Eastport, Idaho, with 73 other cows. Delivered to a Mattawa, Wash., finishing company that feeds young cattle until maturation.

October 2001: Sold to Sunny Dene Ranch in Mabton, Wash.

Dec. 9: Slaughtered at Vern's Moses Lake Meats in Moses Lake, Wash. Carcass sent to Midway Meats in Centralia, Wash., for de-boning. Meat cuts sent to two processing plants in the Portland, Ore., area - Willamette Valley Meats and Interstate Meats - which grinds the beef and sells some to retailers in Washington, Oregon, California and Nevada.

Dec. 11: Testing samples from the cow arrive at U.S. Department of Agriculture lab in Ames, Iowa.

Dec. 22: Preliminary test results are positive for bovine spongiform encephalopathy, known as mad cow disease.

Dec. 24: USDA recalls all meat processed at Vern's Moses Lake Meats on Dec. 9.

Dec. 25: Scientists in England confirm finding of mad cow disease.

Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture

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