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Meat From Infected Cow Found in More States

The U.S. beef supply is safe, federal officials contend

SUNDAY, Dec. 28, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- U.S. agriculture officials said Sunday that meat from the Holstein cow from Washington state diagnosed with mad cow disease was sent to four more states and one territory than previously thought.

Dr. Kenneth Petersen, a veterinarian with the Agriculture Department, said investigators have determined that some of the meat from the animal that was slaughtered on Dec. 9 went to Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana and the territory of Guam. Officials had previously said the meat was distributed to California, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington state.

But Petersen insisted the meat from the diseased cow posed almost no risk to humans because the parts most likely to carry infection -- the brain, spinal cord and lower intestine -- were removed before the meat was cut and processed for distribution to consumers.

Still, U.S. officials said they've taken the precaution of recalling approximately 10,000 pounds of meat from the infected cow and from 19 other cows all slaughtered at Vern's Moses Lake Meat Co. in Washington state.

"The recalled meat represents essentially zero risk to consumers," Petersen said.

On Saturday, U.S. agriculture officials announced that the stricken cow was imported from Canada two years ago.

The Agriculture Department's chief veterinarian, Dr. Ron DeHaven, said Canadian officials had 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 was 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 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.

Officials are awaiting results of DNA tests to confirm the date and place of the animal's birth.

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 New York Times 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.

And a finding that the cow arrived in the United States after a 1997 law banning the use of leftover animal parts in cow feed would greatly reduce the likelihood of a widespread outbreak of mad cow disease here, experts said.

"This is good news," said George Gray, executive director of the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, which has done several reports on the possible spread of the disease in the United States for the Agriculture Department. "It doesn't tell us that something is wrong with our system. And if the rules in place are followed, this disease shouldn't spread," he told the Times.

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 last week.

As a result, the United States has temporarily lost almost all 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.

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, 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 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."

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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