November 18, 2004



US Beef Exports Suffer Setback with Possible New Mad Cow Disease Case


A possible new case of mad cow disease is now being verified in the US, rattling the nation's cattle industry, food processors and beef-oriented restaurant chains.


Additional checks are being conducted after initial testing proved inconclusive on the suspect brain tissue. Officials said the animal never entered the food or feed chain.


The Agriculture Department gave no information on the location or origin of the slaughtered animal, and said results from advanced tests were not expected before four to seven days.


Ranches and businesses dependent on beef are still feeling financial effects from the nation's only confirmed case of the fatal brain-wasting disease last December.


Thursday's announcement sent cattle prices tumbling on fears that foreign markets would remain closed to US beef.


Mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, attacks an animal's nervous system. People who eat food contaminated with BSE can contract variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a rare disease that is nearly always fatal.


"The inconclusive result does not mean we have found another case of BSE in this country," said Andrea Morgan, associate deputy administrator of the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.


The "inconclusive result" was the same term the agency used in June when two potential cases turned out to be false alarms. Inconclusive results "are a normal component of screening tests, which are designed to be extremely sensitive so they will detect any sample that could possibly be positive," according to Morgan.


"USDA remains confident in the safety of the US beef supply," she added.


An industry representative seconded that view.


"Inconclusive test results are just what they sound like - inconclusive," said J. Patrick Boyle, president of the American Meat Institute. "Regardless of the outcome of this test result, US beef is safe."


Alisa Harrison, an Agriculture Department spokeswoman, said the animal in question was among "high-risk animals" subjected to the new screening procedures. Those are animals that died on the farm, have trouble walking or showed signs of nerve damage.


She said no quarantines have been established on slaughterhouses, feedlots or farms. "There's no reason to do that since it's an inconclusive result," Harrison said. "Should it be positive, we will be ready."


In the only confirmed US case, a Canadian-born Holstein was found to have been infected in Washington state last December. More than 40 countries shut off imports of US beef, and more than 700 additional cattle in Washington state, Oregon and Idaho were killed as a precaution.


Many of those bans remain in place. The announcement of a possible new case comes less than a month after US negotiators reached tentative agreements with both Japan and Taiwan to resume US beef and beef product shipments.


Morgan, the USDA official, did not anticipate the new announcement would affect those negotiations because of safeguards that are now in place as well as "measures that we have already taken to date."


Exports represent about $3.8 billion of America's $40 billion a year beef industry.


The Bush administration is working to establish a national identification system for tracking livestock and poultry from birth through the production chain.


The USDA said in a statement that information about the animal and origin would be released only if the tests come back positive.


The agency says it has performed rapid screening tests on over 113,000 cattle since an enhanced surveillance program began June 1 on cattle considered at high risk for BSE - and that this was only the third time samples had been sent on to the next level of testing.


The two earlier samples, both in June, were deemed "inconclusive," and additional tests came back negative.


Thursday's announcement triggered a flurry of assertions by state agriculture officials that the animal did not come from their states. Other states' officials said they had no information on the origin.


Jan Lyons, a Kansas cattle producer who is the president of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association said the brain tissue sample had been sent to a national agricultural laboratory in Ames, Iowa. "We can't assume at this point that this 'inconclusive' represents a positive case," Lyons said.


The Consumer Federation of America suggested that the "inconclusive" label was itself misleading, and that the government should have reported the finding as a "preliminary positive." Still, said federation official Carol Tucker, "there is no reason for consumers to be alarmed by the announcement."

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