- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 25, 2003

An independent lab in England yesterday confirmed that an animal from Washington state had mad cow disease as U.S. investigators searched for the source of the country’s first case of the brain-wasting illness.

Scientists at the Central Veterinary Laboratory in Waybridge, England, received sample tissue from the infected cow Christmas morning and quickly concurred with the U.S. test results announced Tuesday. The British scientists said they will conduct their own test using another sample from the Holstein’s brain. Final results were expected by the end of the week.

“USDA Chief Veterinarian Ron DeHaven considers this concurrence to be confirmatory of our finding of a positive [mad cow] case,” the U.S. Agriculture Department announced yesterday. “We fully anticipate they will be consistent with the earlier finding from similar tests” conducted at USDA, the department said.

Government officials insisted that the risk to the nation’s food supply remained low because the cow’s brain and spine — nerve tissue where scientists say the disease is found — were removed before it was distributed for processing.

But officials were taking no chances, quarantining the farm from which the cow came and recalling meat that was processed at the same time as the infected animal.

Investigators spent Christmas trying to find out where the dairy cow was born and track its movements through slaughter, processing and distribution. One USDA official said the Mabton, Wash., farm where the diseased cow last lived kept thorough records.

The government is trying to find the herd with which the cow was raised, because the cow likely was infected several years ago by eating feed made partly from an infected cow. The incubation period in cattle is four to five years, said Dr. Stephen Sundlof of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Authorities also want to know where the animals were transported and have narrowed their search to two unidentified livestock markets in Washington state, where the sick cow might have been purchased.

USDA spokeswoman Alisa Harrison said the agency’s efforts were meant to eliminate the chance of an outbreak of the disease and calm public fears about the nation’s food supply.

Mad cow disease, officially known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, is a fatal disorder that attacks the central nervous system and can move to humans who eat infected tissue.

Humans can contract a fatal variant of mad cow disease by eating infected beef products, but scientists say muscle cuts of beef — including steaks and roasts — are safe. Hamburger ground from labeled cuts, such as chuck or round, also poses little health risk, scientists say.

The disease has devastated cattle industries abroad even though few people have contracted the human variant of mad cow, known as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. BSE is believed to be spread among cattle when infected animals are processed into feed and given to healthy animals — a practice that is banned in the United States.

China yesterday joined a list of more than 20 countries that have banned U.S. beef from their markets. The industry’s biggest export markets — Japan, South Korea and Mexico — already have closed their borders, shutting off a revenue stream worth $2 billion to $3 billion a year to the domestic cattle industry.

Consumer backlash remains another concern. Federal and industry officials emphasized that U.S. beef remains safe for consumption, but skeptical investors Wednesday sold off stocks of food processor Tyson Foods and fast-food restaurant chains including McDonald’s and Wendy’s. Cattle and grain futures prices also plunged.

This article was based in part on wire service reports.

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