- The Washington Times - Friday, April 28, 2006

ASSOCIATED PRESS

No more than a dozen cattle in all of America’s herds are likely to have mad cow disease, according to Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns.

The estimate comes from data released yesterday about testing for the disease. Testing likely will be scaled back after a panel of independent scientists reviews the data, Mr. Johanns said.

“The data shows the prevalence of [bovine spongiform encephalopathy] in the United States is extraordinarily low,” Mr. Johanns told reporters.

“In other words, we have an extremely healthy herd of cattle in our country,” Mr. Johanns said.

The brain-wasting disorder infected more than 180,000 cattle and was blamed for more than 150 human deaths during a European outbreak that peaked in 1993.

The first American case appeared a decade later, prompting the United States to increase its testing for mad cow disease, which is medically known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE. So far, the U.S. has found three cattle infected with the disease.

But the first case, a Canadian cow found in Washington state, is not included in the testing analysis. If that animal were included, then analysts would have revised their estimate upward, to five-to-11 infected cattle nationwide.

The scientific peer review should be finished by the end of next month, Mr. Johanns said.

Mr. Johanns said there is little justification for keeping up the higher testing levels, which rose to about 1,000 samples daily from about 55 samples daily before mad cow turned up in the United States.

Officials have not decided what the new level of testing will be but said international guidelines call for about 110 tests per day.

A critic of the testing said the data are limited. Some regions of the country had fewer tests because samples were not collected in a scientifically random manner.

“These shortfalls limit the conclusions we can draw from [U.S. Department of Agriculture’s] expanded testing program,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat.

The department’s inspector general raised similar concerns in a report earlier this year.

Mr. Johanns has said he wants to persuade Japan to resume U.S. beef shipments before deciding whether to cut the level of testing. Yesterday, he said he will discuss the testing data with his Japanese counterpart, Shoichi Nakagawa, when the two attend trade talks next week in Geneva.

Japan blocked U.S. beef shipments in January after finding veal cuts containing backbone, which Japan has banned from its food supply. The cuts are considered safe to eat in the U.S.

Once the biggest customer of American beef, Japan had only recently ended a ban imposed after the first U.S. case of mad cow disease in 2003.

Mr. Johanns pointed out the testing is not supposed to protect food from mad cow disease; testing is supposed to show how prevalent the disease is.

Rules for how cattle are slaughtered keep mad cow disease from entering the food supply for people or animals, he said.

Cattle parts thought most likely to carry the disease are removed from cattle at slaughter. The list of parts that must be removed grows with the animal’s age, because scientists think infection levels are higher in older animals.

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