Diseased Cow Came From Canada, U.S. Officials Say

American meat supply is safe, experts contend

SATURDAY, Dec. 27, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- U.S. agriculture officials say it appears the Holstein dairy cow found infected with mad cow disease in Washington state was imported from Canada two years ago.

The Agriculture Department's chief veterinarian, Dr. Ron DeHaven, said Canadian officials have supplied records indicating the cow was in a herd of 74 cattle shipped from Alberta, Canada, to Eastport, Idaho, in 2001, according to the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.

Canada reported its first case of mad cow disease in Alberta earlier this year. The Washington case is the first ever in the United States.

However, the chief veterinary officer of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Dr. Brian Evans, said it's too soon to say for sure the cow came from Canada because Canadian and U.S. records that apparently refer to the same animal don't agree on key details, the Associated Press reported.

According to Canadian records, the diseased cow was 6 1/2-years-old -- older than U.S. officials had thought, said DeHaven. U.S. papers on the cow said she was 4- or 4 1/2-years-old.

The agriculture department said meat linked to the infected cow was sold in four western states -- California, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington.

U.S. officials insist the meat was safe, however. The reason: The parts of the cow that carry mad cow disease -- the brain, spinal cord, and lower part of the intestine -- were removed before the meat was processed. That practice is standard procedure in the United States, said Ken Peterson of the department's Food Safety and Inspection Service.

DeHaven added that the sick cow's presence in the herd of 74 imported from Canada doesn't mean all the animals are infected. Investigators are tracking down the location of the other animals, the AP said.

"We feel confident that we are going to be able to determine the whereabouts of most, if not all, of these animals within several days," DeHaven said.

If it's determined the diseased cow came from Canada, it would be significant for the battered American cattle industry because the United States could retain its disease-free status. The National Cattlemen's Beef Association estimates that the United States has lost 90 percent of its export market in recent days because more than two dozen countries have banned the import of U.S. beef, according to the AP.

The Washington animal most likely became sick from eating contaminated feed, so the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is tracking down what it ate. That's a difficult task because the cow may have gotten the disease years ago, long before it showed signs that it was sick. The disease has an incubation period of four or five years, the AP said.

Meanwhile, U.S. health officials continue to scrutinize the existing inspection process for meat.

The Department of Agriculture is trying to determine whether to do far more screening and also change the way meat from suspect animals is used, department officials told The New York Times.

And a task force of industry and government experts has already drafted a preliminary plan for a national tracking system to quickly quell outbreaks of disease or threats of terrorism, the AP reported.

The task force has explored tracking cattle and other farm animals with radio frequency devices in ear tags or implants as part of the U.S. Animal Identification Plan, which is expected to be implemented over the next three years, the AP said. Other technologies may be required to determine the origin of several different animals that usually make up a batch of ground beef.

USDA officials acknowledged that European and Japanese regulators screen millions of animals using tests that take only three hours, which is fast enough to stop diseased carcasses from being cut up for food.

U.S. inspectors have tested fewer than 30,000 of the 300 million animals slaughtered in the last nine years, and they get results days or weeks later, the Times reported. And according to DeHaven, the USDA chief veterinarian, the U.S. system was never intended to keep sick animals from reaching the public's refrigerators. It is "a surveillance system, not a food safety test," he said.

Nonetheless, U.S. health experts insist the health risk posed by mad cow disease to humans is low.

The discovery of the Washington cow is "like an alert. We're not as safe as we thought we might be," said David Lineback, director of the Joint Institute of Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, a cooperative venture between the University of Maryland and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Still, many nations -- including Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Australia, Taiwan, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Mexico and Russia -- all have imposed various bans on American meat since U.S. officials announced the presence of mad cow in the Washington cow earlier this week.

As a result, the United States has temporarily lost roughly 90 percent of its beef exports.

Gregg Doud, an economist with the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, said Friday that the United States could lose at least $6 billion a year in exports and sagging domestic prices due to the mad cow diagnosis, the AP reported.

"We've lost roughly 90 percent of our export market just in the last three days," Doud said.

The Washington state slaughterhouse that processed the diseased cow's carcass along with 19 others on Dec. 9 has recalled all 10,410 pounds of raw beef it sent out that day, according to the USDA.

Vern's Moses Lake Meat Co. said it was conducting the voluntary recall "out of an abundance of caution," even though the meat "would not be expected to be infected or have an adverse public health impact," the AP quoted the company as saying.

USDA officials have said the diseased cow joined a Mabton, Wash., farm herd of 4,000 in October 2001 and was culled from the other cows after becoming paralyzed, apparently as a result of calving. After it was slaughtered Dec. 9, its parts went to at least three processing plants, which officials haven't yet identified, the AP added.

The discovery of mad cow, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), in the United States was bound to happen sooner or later, scientists said.

"It was an inevitability," Lineback said. "There was a low probability, [but] when you have that many million cattle, that is still a finite risk of occurrence. It's just a matter of when."

But he added, the bottom line is still good news for now: Go ahead and eat hamburger, or steak if you prefer. "At this stage of the game, I do not see warning people to avoid or to minimize anything," Lineback said.

More information

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has current updates on BSE; also the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

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