050611 US Finds Possible 2nd Mad Cow Case

June 11, 2005

Washington - In what could be the second U.S. case of mad cow disease, an older beef animal tested positive for the deadly ailment but will undergo a last round of tests at a British laboratory to confirm the results, Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said.

The only U.S. confirmed case of mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy ( BSE), was found in December 2003 in a Washington state dairy cow. That discovery halted billions of dollars worth of American beef exports and raised questions about the safety of the U.S. food supply.

Johanns said the new suspect case involved an older beef animal chosen for testing because it was a "downer" animal that could not walk when delivered for slaughter. The carcass never entered the human food or livestock feed supply, he said.

"This animal was a downer animal and did not get into the food or feed chain. There just is no risk whatsoever," Johanns told reporters in a hastily called news conference late on Friday evening.

The government refused to disclose any information about the suspect animal's origin or where it was slaughtered. "It was getting up in age. It was a beef breed," said John Clifford, chief veterinarian for the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

It is not unusual to have conflicting test results for BSE, cattle experts said.

The USDA said the suspect animal tested positive for BSE in a rapid, preliminary test in November. When it was retested with more sophisticated technology, it was found free of the disease.

But USDA's Inspector General earlier this week asked department scientists to retest the suspect animal, and two others, using yet a third kind of technology known as the "Western blot" test. That test showed the beef animal was infected with the brain-wasting ailment, Johanns said.

Scientists say people can contract a human form of the disease by eating infected meat products.


USDA officials said they would send the animal's brain tissue to an internationally known laboratory in Weybridge, England, for a final, confirmatory test.

"We have not confirmed a case of BSE in the United States at this time," said Clifford. "It's going to require additional testing to determine if this is BSE or not."

Discovery of the suspect animal comes at a time when USDA officials have pressed Japan and South Korea to resume purchases of American beef. Both nations were major buyers of U.S. beef until they suspended purchases in December 2003.

A South Korean Agriculture Ministry official, who requested anonymity, said his country was studying U.S. safety measures and was far from deciding whether to lift the import ban.

"I don't believe this has any impact on our international trading partners," Johanns said.

Nor should U.S. consumers shun beef, said Johanns, who told reporters he relished "a good steak." Per- capita consumption of beef in America is rising by about one pound (0.45 kg) per year.

Carol Foreman of the Consumer Federation of America agreed there was no reason for Americans to avoid beef. But she said the case "once again undermines the Agriculture Department's adamant insistence" there was no risk of BSE, adding that the USDA should do a better job of enforcing safeguards against the disease.

The United States has asked Japan to allow imports of American beef from cattle under 20 months of age. Scientists believe that younger animals pose less risk of the disease because it takes several years to incubate within an animal's nervous system.

At the same time, the USDA is involved in a lawsuit with activist ranchers who want to derail its plan to reopen the U.S. border to imports of cattle from Canada, which has confirmed three domestic cases of mad cow disease.

The ranchers blame Canada for introducing mad cow to the United States and want to keep the border closed. The first U.S. case was a dairy cow raised in Canada. USDA said it had no information if the new suspect animal was imported.

On Thursday, Johanns held a public meeting in Minnesota to make a public case to resume cattle trade with Canada, which used to send about 1 million head to U.S. slaughter annually.

U.S. meat industry officials say they are being forced to close plants and lay off workers because they cannot obtain enough cattle to keep the plants operating efficiently.


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