- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 31, 2003

U.S. meat exporters yesterday asked the Bush administration for stronger efforts to reopen overseas markets after the country’s first mad cow case shut down more than $3 billion in foreign sales.

“The reality of this issue is that there are short- and long-term actions that must be taken to re-establish the United States as the world’s number one beef exporter,” Philip Seng, president of the U.S. Meat Export Federation said in a statement.

The exporters did not explicitly ask for a handout. They, first and foremost, want the Bush administration to convince countries like Japan and South Korea that beef that was already on the way is safe and should be allowed into their markets.

Then, they want markets permanently reopened so that they can resume selling more than $3 billion a year to overseas markets.

A U.S. trade delegation visited Japan and South Korea, the two biggest export markets, this week but the two countries said they would not accept U.S. beef.

Agriculture officials are scheduled to push their case in Mexico next week.

The government last week reported the first U.S. case of mad cow disease. A dairy cow from Washington state, slaughtered Dec. 9, tested positive for the fatal brain-wasting disease.

All major markets for U.S. beef exports have at least partially banned American meat following the mad cow announcement — shutting down more than $3 billion in annual trade and stranding between 1,800 and 2,000 containers of meat worth an estimated $200 million aboard ships.

“These containers of highly perishable product are being held hostage on the high seas because our trading partners closed their borders at the moment of the announcement,” Mr. Seng said.

“U.S. companies, many of them small and based in rural America, will suffer financial disaster — some even ruin. This beef is safe and [mad cow]-free by any definition. We ask the administration to make this its highest priority now — because time is running out for this product,” Mr. Seng said.

The Export Federation, a trade association, represents meat producers, processors and distributors and is funded by companies and the U.S. Agriculture Department.

U.S. cattle futures fell for a fifth straight session yesterday, largely on concerns that lost export markets would force beef prices lower.

“We will continue to have discussions with our trading partners,” said Ron DeHaven, chief veterinary officer for the USDA. A technical team from Japan is expected to visit the United States next week to participate in the investigation, he added.

U.S. officials hope results of their ongoing investigation will calm foreign buyers.

Federal officials were scheduled to begin DNA tests on the Washington state dairy cow that tested positive for the disease. Mr. DeHaven said those results would likely confirm the animal was born before a ban on a type of feed that can spread the disease, and originated in Canada.

Federal officials believe that 82 cattle that entered the United States from Canada along with the diseased Holstein are in Washington state, Mr. DeHaven said yesterday, though he would not rule out the possibility they had moved to other locations.

Nine of the 82 are at the same farm as the mad cow case, and officials are tracing the exact location of the remaining cattle, he said. Those nine are quarantined but have not been tested for mad cow disease.

Canadian food safety investigators, meanwhile, established a tentative link between a plant that produces components of animal feed in Edmonton and the infected Washington state dairy cow, the Edmonton Journal reported yesterday.

The plant may have provided contaminated material to mills that mixed feed for the Alberta farm where the cow was likely born and to another Canadian farm that in May reported a case of mad cow disease.

“Right now, it’s possible that the feed both for this cow and the one found in May contained materials from one rendering plant in the Edmonton area,” Tom Spiller of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency told the Edmonton paper.

Mr. DeHaven yesterday said that it is “premature” to draw any conclusions from the information available.

Mad cow is formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE. The affliction is fatal to cattle and can cause a variant of the disease in humans who eat infected meat. As of Dec. 1, a total of 153 cases had been reported in the world, mostly in Britain, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Agriculture Department officials have emphasized the safety of the U.S. meat supply as they look to maintain consumer confidence and reopen foreign markets that closed after the mad cow announcement.

Officials Tuesday announced new measures to bolster food safety and groups like the Export Federation praised the Bush administration for these steps.

“Downer” cattle, animals that are too sick or injured to walk, will no longer be allowed into the human food chain, a new tracking system will follow cattle from birth to slaughter, and other rules will decrease the likelihood of infected tissue from making its way to consumers.

Central nervous tissue — the brain and spinal cord — can transmit BSE; Agriculture Department officials said muscle cuts of meat, such as steaks, are safe.

U.S. officials hope the steps announced Tuesday and results of an ongoing investigation will encourage trade partners to quickly reopen markets.

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