- The Washington Times - Monday, December 29, 2003

An animal infected with mad cow disease was likely born in Canada before the United States and Canada banned feed that spreads the fatal illness, U.S. agriculture officials said yesterday.

The animal’s age, 6 years rather than the 4 previously thought, would mean efforts to prevent the disease had not broken down.

“The age of the animal is especially important in that it is a likely explanation as to how this animal would have become infected,” said Ron DeHaven, chief veterinary officer for the U.S. Agriculture Department.

The Bush administration last week announced the United States’ first case of mad cow disease, and U.S. and Canadian officials continue to investigate the source.

Dr. DeHaven yesterday said that records indicate the dairy cow that tested positive for the disease was born in western Canada in April 1997. The United States and Canada did not until August 1997 ban the feed that is believed to transmit the sickness — feed made from parts of cattle, goats and similar animals — indicating that apparently no rules to prevent mad cow had been broken in the United States’ first case.

DNA tests are still needed to confirm the information. But the explanation for the infection would come as a relief to officials who have defended current measures to prevent mad cow disease, and it would mean that future cases are decreasingly likely.

“Obviously, the more time goes by the fewer animals that are alive that would have been exposed to feed before this feed ban went into place,” Dr. DeHaven said.

Consumer groups have accused the government of inadequate mad cow disease prevention efforts, such as more testing. Less than 1 percent of the 35 million cattle slaughtered annually in the United States are tested for the disease, usually only after they arrive at a slaughterhouse unable to walk and showing symptoms. A 2002 General Accounting Report questioned testing efforts, saying the government failed to test high-risk animals that die on farms.

Dr. DeHaven said the USDA is reviewing its entire mad cow disease prevention program.

“It’s only prudent that given this new finding that we look at our program, our overall system as it relates to U.S. beef in total, and consider changes that we may need to make,” he said.

Federal officials are trying to locate 81 cattle from the same herd that entered the United States together with the infected dairy cow. The herd would have eaten the same feed and could also be infected.

“We are now tracing the location of all 81 animals,” Dr. DeHaven said.

The investigation so far has done little to assuage trade partners. Countries representing more than 90 percent of all export markets, worth more than $3 billion, have shut their doors to U.S. beef.

A U.S. trade delegation yesterday was in Japan, the biggest buyer of U.S. beef, to explain the mad cow case, but officials in Tokyo said they would maintain a ban pending more information. The decision leaves $200 million in products already shipped on the ocean with no place to go, said Lynn Heinze, spokesman for the U.S. Meat Export Federation.

“We’re very disappointed,” Mr. Heinze said. “There is some hope that a few countries will be modifying bans, but it is premature to talk about that.”

The mad cow case has damaged the industry, which exports about 10 percent of production, and a continued shutdown of foreign markets would depress prices and hurt ranchers. Beef futures fell the maximum amount allowed on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange yesterday for the third straight trading session.

Some analysts said that the worst may be over. Information about the source of the infected cow and other results from the investigation mitigate some concerns, said Dave Hightower, editor of the Hightower Report, a publication focusing on Chicago futures trading. “Into the future a sustained [downward] thrust might be surprising,” Mr. Hightower said.

The Bush administration is working its assertion that American beef is safe, even as it recalled more than 10,000 pounds of beef from 20 cattle slaughtered with the infected cow. Most of that meat was distributed in Washington and Oregon but some was also shipped to six other states and Guam, a U.S. territory in the western Pacific.

“The recalled meat represents essentially zero risk to consumers,” said Kenneth Petersen, a USDA veterinarian.

Most consumers appear to have discounted health concerns. “It has had no impact upon our business,” said Barry Scher, spokesman for Giant Food. Six customers had called Giant supermarkets with mad cow concerns as of yesterday afternoon, he said.

Michael Sternberg, chief executive officer of Sam & Harry’s Restaurant Holdings, said the high-end D.C. restaurants run by his company saw no falloff in meat sales over the weekend. “As long as we send out the right information, I am not worried about it at all,” he said.

Burger chains also said sales remain strong. McDonald’s, which saw profits tumble in 2001 with a mad cow outbreak in Europe, and Wendy’s, both reported strong sales through the weekend.

McDonald’s stock yesterday rose for a second straight session, ending up 51 cents to $24.60, while Wendy’s increased 56 cents to $38.55.

Mad cow disease, formally called bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, fatally attacks the central nervous system of cattle. Humans who have eaten brain and spinal-column tissue from an infected animal have developed variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a brain-wasting illness.

USDA officials said that humans who eat muscle cuts of beef, like steaks and roasts, are not at risk.

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