- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 30, 2004

An animal that last week tested “inconclusive” for mad cow disease does not have the fatal, brain-wasting malady, the U.S. Agriculture Department said yesterday.

The USDA since Friday has twice notified the public of inconclusive test results for mad cow disease, but gave no further details. The testing is part of a stepped-up effort since the December discovery of the country’s first mad cow case.

The announcements drove cattle markets down, causing some cattle industry groups to ask the department to rethink its approach.

“The U.S. cattle industry and the public deserve straightforward and complete facts from USDA, not censored bits of data that serve no public interest, other than to allow opportunists to exploit the resulting volatility in the U.S. live cattle market,” said Leo McDonnell, president of the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, an industry group representing cattle producers.

Mad cow disease, officially known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, is a fatal disorder that attacks the central nervous system of cattle. In rare instances, a form of it has infected humans who eat diseased tissue.

The USDA is screening about 268,000 animals as part of a yearlong program to determine the prevalence of the disease in the United States.

Cattle are screened with one test, which offers only preliminary results, inconclusive or negative. With inconclusive results, individual carcasses are removed from the food chain and conclusive tests, which take four to seven days, are performed at a USDA lab.

USDA said it would announce each inconclusive result to prevent rumors from affecting markets and to inform the public.

“There’s a lot of discussion around that. And, I think the most important thing, the USDA wants to be very transparent with this issue,” said Dr. John Clifford, a deputy administrator at USDA.

But markets have fallen and rumors have spread quickly after inconclusive results.

Cattle for August delivery fell 2.4 percent to 85.75 cents a pound yesterday on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, a two-week low. Prices fell 3.3 percent after Friday’s announcement.

The American Meat Institute, which represents the meatpacking industry, also has questioned the way the department is “dribbling out inconclusive results.”

David Ray, an AMI spokesman, said beef is safe but the announcements cause undue consumer concern, roil markets and hurt chances that major overseas markets will resume purchasing American beef.

Foreign-trade partners responded by closing off their markets to American cattle and beef, and cattle prices quickly dipped after the December announcement of the first U.S. case. But the beef industry rebounded because of continuing strong demand among U.S. consumers, assisted in part by popular low-carbohydrate, high-protein diets.

Smithfield Foods, based in Smithfield, Va., reported earlier this month that its beef business had returned to profitability “after several months of unprofitable operations following the discovery of a single case of BSE in Washington state in December 2003, and the subsequent ban on beef exports from the United States to most foreign countries.”

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