- The Washington Times - Friday, December 26, 2003

Two cattle herds remained under quarantine today and a special trade team was headed for Japan, the largest importer of U.S. beef, as federal investigators sought to determine where and how an animal was infected with mad cow disease.

The government Tuesday reported the United States’ first case of mad cow disease, a fatal illness that affects cattle and can spread to humans who eat infected tissue.

Federal investigators are working through a “tangled web of different possibilities” as they try to determine the origin of the infection, Ron DeHaven, chief veterinary officer for the U.S. Agriculture Department, said yesterday.

The United States is sending a senior envoy to Japan in a bid to calm fears over the outbreak. Investigators admitted their probe into the first U.S. case of the deadly infection could last months.

David Hegwood, special counsel to Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman, was to leave for Japan with a trade team involving other government agencies.

“We are only in day three of what is no doubt going to be a very complex and complicated investigation,” Mr. DeHaven told reporters in a conference call.

“If we’re lucky, we could know something in a matter of a day or two,” he added, but cautioned that the investigation could drag on for months.

Federal officials continue to emphasize that beef remains safe for human consumption and that infected tissue — from the cow’s central nervous system — did not enter the food chain. Humans can contract a fatal variant of mad cow disease by eating infected products, but officials say muscle cuts of beef — including steaks and roasts — are safe.

But federal officials issued a voluntary recall of meat from the facility in Washington state that processed the diseased cow. Mr. DeHaven said yesterday that two herds are under quarantine and that more may be added as the movements of the infected Holstein cow become known.

The animal’s origin is key to the investigation because it was likely infected from contaminated feed around the time of its birth, 41/2 years ago.

The incubation period for mad cow disease is 4 years to 5 years, said Stephen Sundlof, director of the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Veterinary Medicine.

The disease is almost always spread through a kind of feed, banned in the United States since 1997, that is made partly from animal remains. Mr. DeHaven said the Holstein’s birth herd would likely be quarantined as soon as it is located.

The ongoing search may lead investigators to another location in Washington state, to another part of the country or to Canada, Mr. DeHaven said.

“It would be premature to speculate where the birth herd might be. Clearly, that is the emphasis of our investigation at this time,” he said.

The diseased dairy cow recently gave birth to a bull calf that was sold to an operation in Sunnyside, Wash., which was placed under quarantine Dec. 24. Of two other calves, one died at birth and another remained in the herd with the diseased cow in Mabton, Wash. The Mabton herd also is under quarantine.

Mr. DeHaven said that the diseased animal arrived at the Mabton operation from one of two possible middlemen, a livestock market or a dairy operation that he would not identify.

The cattle industry has insisted that the case announced this week shows that the U.S. system for detecting BSE works. Critics are less certain, and already the government is considering ways to better detect and trace the disease, including increased testing and an electronic system that would indicate the history of each individual animal.

The USDA had anticipated increasing the number of mad cow tests to 38,000 this fiscal year, from 20,526. The figure is still only a tiny fraction of the animals slaughtered annually.

Already the case has had serious repercussions for the industry as major export markets have banned U.S. beef and commodity prices have fallen. Cattle futures at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange yesterday fell by the maximum allowed in one day and then sales halted for lack of buyers.

Restaurants, however, rebounded from the mad cow scare. Hamburger chain McDonald’s yesterday rose 13 cents to $24.09, while rival Wendy’s climbed 19 cents to $37.98.

Tyson Foods, a major meat processor, slid for the second day. Yesterday, it ended down 31 cents to $12.59.

USDA officials are trying to help ranchers by reopening markets. The team heading to Japan today may visit other Asian countries to discuss the facts of the case. Japan is the biggest importer of U.S. beef, but closed its market after the U.S. mad cow announcement.

Most major importers of U.S. beef have banned American cattle and beef products.

U.S. officials want to reopen foreign markets, potentially worth more than $3 billion a year, as soon as possible.

Mad cow disease, officially known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, is a fatal disorder that attacks the central nervous system of the cow.

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