- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 27, 2003

Investigators have tentatively traced the first U.S. case of mad cow disease to Canada, which could help determine the scope of the outbreak and might even limit the economic damage to the U.S. beef industry.

In addition, some calves in a quarantined herd of 400 that included a male offspring of the sick cow likely will be killed, the Agriculture Department said yesterday. The herd was at a farm in Sunnyside, Wash., which officials refused to name.

Dr. Ron DeHaven, the Agriculture Department’s chief veterinarian, said yesterday that Canadian officials provided records indicating the sick Holstein cow was in a herd of 74 cattle shipped from Alberta, Canada, into this country in August 2001 at Eastport, Idaho. The Canadians themselves, however, denied that such evidence was definitive.

“These animals were all dairy cattle and entered the U.S. only about 2 or 21/2 years ago, so most of them are still likely alive,” Dr. DeHaven said.

But in Ottawa, chief Canadian veterinarian Dr. Brian Evans said at a news conference that, “It would be premature to draw such a conclusion at this time. … As yet, there is no definitive evidence that confirms that the BSE-infected cow originated in Canada.”

The sick cow’s presence in that herd also does not mean all 74 animals are infected, Dr. DeHaven said. Investigators will probably locate the other 73 animals within a matter of days, he said. Finding them will help investigators determine if any other animals are sick and need to be tested.

In May, Canada found a lone cow with the disease in Alberta but has not been able to determine the source of infection.

If U.S. and Canadian officials confirm that the sick cow in Washington came from Canada, it might save the export market for the U.S. beef industry because the United States could keep its disease-free status and maintain trade.

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association in Denver said the indication that the infected cow was from Canada means U.S. trading partners should reopen their borders to American beef. The farm organization said a beef-export monitoring program would allow importers to separate beef of Canadian origin if they believe additional precautions are needed.

Federal officials announced Tuesday that tests indicated the cow, which ended up at a Washington farm in October 2001, had mad cow disease, a brain-wasting illness. An international laboratory in Britain confirmed it Thursday.

Julie Quick, a department spokeswoman, said yesterday that officials are awaiting a recommendation from USDA scientists on whether to kill some of the calves at Sunnyside. But that seems likely because investigators cannot tell which calf was from the sick cow.

“Since the calf was not tagged, all bull calves at the Sunnyside premises under 30 days of age will likely be depopulated,” the department said. It was not clear how many calves were in that category.

Mad cow disease, formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy or BSE, is a concern because humans who eat brain or spinal matter from an infected cow can develop Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. In Britain, 143 persons died of it after an outbreak of mad cow in the 1980s.

Federal officials insist U.S. meat is safe because the brain, spinal cord and lower intestine — parts that carry infection — were removed from the cow before its meat was processed for human consumption.

Despite those assurances, more than two dozen countries banned U.S. beef this week. The United States lost 90 percent of its beef-export market, industry officials say, and producers stand to lose up to $6 billion a year in exports and falling domestic prices. Agriculture officials went yesterday to Japan, a top buyer that has banned U.S. beef, to discuss maintaining trade.

But connecting the infected cow to Canada could deal another blow to the Canadian beef industry, which has struggled since it found its case of mad cow last May. It lost $1 million in beef trade per day as countries cut off beef imports.

In denying that Canada was definitively the source, Dr. Evans also noted that details on the cow’s records in the United States do not match the ones kept in Canada.

Canadian papers show the cow had two calves before it was shipped to the United States, which wasn’t documented by U.S. officials.

Also, Dr. DeHaven of the USDA said Canadian papers say the diseased cow was 61/2 years old — older than U.S. officials had thought. U.S. records say the cow was 4 or 41/2 years old.

Because of the discrepancies, Dr. Evans cautioned against “a premature conclusion that the definitive animal or definitive birthplace has been located.”

The age is significant because the animal may have been born before the United States and Canada in 1997 banned certain feed, which is considered the most likely source of infection.

Cows get infected by eating feed that contains tissue from the spine or brain of an infected animal. Farmers used to feed their animals such meal to fatten them.

Although U.S. officials have maintained the food supply is safe, the government recalled an estimated 10,000 pounds of meat cut from the infected cow and from 19 other cows all slaughtered Dec. 9 at Vern’s Moses Lake Meat Co., in Moses Lake, Wash.

Ken Petersen, of the department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, said, “It’s too early to know how much of the product has been brought back, though we know that some of the product is beginning to be at least held at the retail facilities.”

Officials say the slaughtered cow was deboned at Midway Meats in Centralia, Wash., and the meat was sent to two other plants in the region, identified as Willamette Valley Meat and Interstate Meat, both near Portland, Ore.

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