Confirm Mad Cow Finding
By Richard Cowan
- The U.S. Department of Agriculture (news - web sites) said on
Thursday it was convinced that a Washington state dairy cow had
mad cow disease after British scientists reviewed USDA tests on
the slaughtered animal and concluded those tests were interpreted
This week's discovery of mad cow disease in the United States
presents the biggest challenge to consumer confidence in the food
supply since a crisis three years ago when biotech corn not approved
for human consumption showed up in hundreds of supermarket products.
A Holstein cow slaughtered on Dec. 9 in a tiny town in Washington
state was the first animal that tested positive for mad cow disease
in the United States, sending shock waves through the $27 billion
U.S. cattle industry and shutting down American beef sales to
major foreign buyers.
A USDA statement said the British review confirmed the mad cow
finding. USDA spokeswoman Alisa Harrison said British scientists
will perform additional tests, but "we just don't anticipate
that it will be any different."
Federal investigators are scouring records to chart the life of
the animal and others in its birth herd for evidence that they
may have consumed contaminated feed.
Mad cow, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, is a brain-wasting
disease thought to be transmitted from animal feed containing
bovine brains or spinal cord. The United States bans the use of
those materials in feed.
But some consumer groups argue that illegal feed might not be
the only culprit, warning that as carcasses are processed, high-risk
material could accidentally contaminate the beef.
The first known U.S. case of mad cow has prompted those groups
to call for tighter beef industry regulations.
Scientists believe people can contract a human variant of mad
cow by eating beef products infected by BSE (news - web sites).
An outbreak of mad cow disease in Britain and other European countries
over a decade ago, when few protections were in place, has resulted
in 137 human deaths so far.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, in announcing the Washington
state mad cow case on Tuesday, insisted American beef remained
safe. She has noted a lone case of BSE in Canada last spring did
not dampen beef consumption in North America.
But investors fear consumers could reverse a beef-eating binge
fueled in part by popular high-protein diets.
In trading on Wednesday, fast-food hamburger restaurants like
McDonald's (NYSE:MCD - news), Burger King and Wendy's (NYSE:WEN
- news), saw stock prices drop and cattle futures fell by the
limit allowed by the exchange.
In 2000, vast amounts of taco shells and more than 300 other corn-based
products were whisked off market shelves after a genetically modified
corn variety, StarLink, was found in the food supply. The product
was approved only for animal feed and the episode dealt a severe
blow to U.S.-Japan food trade.
The coming days and weeks will test American consumers' response
to the mad cow case.
Andy Hemmendinger, 45, who lives in a suburb of Washington, said
he would now "probably wait a little bit" before buying
beef in a restaurant, "just to see what they find."
He added that the beef he eats at home two or three times a week
is usually organically grown and said he wanted to know more about
the transmission of mad cow disease.
"You're always torn between over-reacting because one thing
happens and being foolish for not finding out what you can and
making a good decision," he told Reuters.
Trading partners immediately closed their borders.
Japan, South Korea (news - web sites) and Mexico, the three top
buyers of the $3 billion worth of beef the United States exports
annually, quickly suspended American beef imports. China, a potentially
huge market for U.S. beef, followed on Thursday.
The Gulf Arab state of Qatar also banned U.S. beef imports on
Thursday, as did neighboring United Arab Emirates, a major regional
trading and re-export hub, a day earlier.
But the Bush administration and U.S. industry want to move away
from the long-term trade bans prompted by the EU epidemic, if
countries that experience isolated cases of mad cow have strong
programs in place to prevent the disease's spread.
Chandler Keys, vice president of the National Cattlemen's Beef
Association (news - web sites), told reporters on Wednesday: "I
think it's time for all of us to sit down and say enough's enough
on this irrational behavior. We need to come back to sound science."