- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 25, 2012

HANFORD, California (AP) — A nondescript building in the heart of California’s dairy country has become the focus of intense scrutiny after mad cow disease was discovered in a dead dairy cow.

The finding, announced Tuesday, is the first new case of the disease in the U.S. since 2006 — and the fact that the discovery was made at all was a stroke of luck. Tests are performed on only a small portion of dead animals brought to the transfer facility near Hanford in central California.

The cow had died at one of the region’s hundreds of dairies, but hadn’t exhibited outward symptoms of the disease: unsteadiness, incoordination, a drastic change in behavior or low milk production, officials said. But when the animal arrived at the facility with a truckload of other dead cows on April 18, its 30-month-plus age and fresh corpse made her eligible for USDA testing.

“We randomly pick a number of samples throughout the year, and this just happened to be one that we randomly sampled,” Baker Commodities executive vice president Dennis Luckey said. “It showed no signs” of disease.

The samples went to the food safety lab at the University of California, Davis on April 18. By April 19, markers indicated the cow could have bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), a disease that is fatal to cows and can cause a deadly human brain disease in people who eat tainted meat. It was sent to the USDA lab in Iowa for further testing.

On Tuesday, federal agriculture officials announced the findings: The animal had atypical BSE. That means it didn’t get the disease from eating infected cattle feed, said John Clifford, the Agriculture Department’s chief veterinary officer.

It was “just a random mutation that can happen every once in a great while in an animal,” said Bruce Akey, director of the New York State Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory at Cornell University. “Random mutations go on in nature all the time.”

Nonetheless, two major South Korean retailers suspended sales of U.S. beef. Reaction elsewhere in Asia was muted with Japan saying there’s no reason to restrict imports.

South Korea’s No. 2 and No. 3 supermarket chains, Home Plus and Lotte Mart, said they have “temporarily” halted sales of U.S. beef to calm worries among South Koreans. South Korea is the world’s fourth-largest importer of U.S. beef, buying 107,000 tons of the meat worth $563 million in 2011.

In humans, experts say the disease can occur in one in 1 million people, causing sponge-like holes in the brain. But they say not enough is known about how and how often the disease strikes cattle.

The disease cannot be transmitted by contact among cows, and experts say it’s unclear whether this rare type of BSE ever has been transmitted from a cow to a human by eating meat.

The California Department of Public Health and the state Department of Food and Agriculture quickly worked to assure consumers that the food supply is safe — and that the cow hadn’t been destined for human consumption. The building where the cow was selected to be tested sends animals to a rendering plants, which process animal parts for products not going into the human food chain, such as animal food, soap, chemicals or other household products.

Among the unknowns about the current case is whether the animal died of the disease and whether other cattle in its herd are similarly infected. The name of the dairy where the cow died hasn’t been released, and officials haven’t said where the cow was born.

“It’s appropriate to be cautious, it’s appropriate to pay attention and it’s appropriate to ask questions, but now let’s watch and see what the researchers find out in the next couple of days,” said James Culler, director of the UC Davis dairy food safety laboratory and an authority on BSE.

Culler said that in this case the food safety testing program worked and that this form of BSE so rarely occurs that consumers shouldn’t be alarmed.

Story Continues →