- The Washington Times - Monday, January 5, 2004

Federal officials this week plan to slaughter 450 calves, one of three herds linked to the United States’ first case of mad cow disease, as they look to allay concerns and reduce any chance of the illness spreading.

“None of the animals will enter the human food chain” or end up in animal feed, Ron DeHaven, chief veterinary officer for the U.S. Agriculture Department, said yesterday.

Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman on Dec. 23 announced the United States’ first mad cow case. Formally called bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, the disease fatally attacks the central nervous system of cattle. More than 150 people, mostly in Britain, who have eaten tissue from infected animals have developed variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a fatal brain-wasting illness.

The American public has not stopped eating beef since the announcement, according to supermarkets and restaurant chains, but foreign buyers closed their markets, eliminating a major source of revenue for the cattle industry and causing futures prices to fall almost 20 percent.

Agriculture officials are now focused on investigating the cause of the lone case, maintaining public confidence in the food supply, preventing future outbreaks of the illness and reopening foreign markets.

As part of those efforts, the Agriculture Department will purchase one herd of 450 calves from Sunnyside, Wash., and slaughter it later this week, Mr. DeHaven said. The price would be based on “fair market” value but yesterday had not been determined.

The herd includes one offspring of the animal diagnosed with mad cow disease. The calf was not tagged at birth, so officials cannot separate it from the rest of the herd.

The calves will be killed at an unused slaughterhouse in Washington state, Mr. DeHaven said. He did not describe how the carcasses would be disposed of, but said there would be no need to go to “extreme measures.”

The meat from the slaughter will not enter the human food supply, nor will it be used in animal feed or other products, Mr. DeHaven said.

The calves will not be tested for mad cow disease because at one month they are too young to show signs of the illness, Mr. DeHaven said.

The USDA veterinary officer said last week the likelihood of the disease spreading from parent to offspring is remote, and that cow-to-cow transmission of the disease is not a serious concern — it is most readily spread when an animal eats tainted feed. But he conceded that public perception would play into decisions to depopulate herds that came into contact with the disease.

Officials yesterday made no announcement on two other herds in Washington state that have been quarantined. One is in Mabton, Wash., where the infected cow was identified, and the other is in Mattawa, Wash.

The infected animal in 2001 entered the United States from Canada with 81 other dairy cows, officials believe. One of those ended up at the Mattawa operation, nine are at the Mabton operation, and the whereabouts of the others are not known.

“We have made significant progress on where they may have gone,” Mr. DeHaven said.

The Agriculture Department last week also announced new rules, including a ban on meat from cattle that are too sick or injured to walk, to help bolster food safety. About 150,000 to 200,000 “downer” cattle would be eliminated from an annual slaughter of more than 35 million.

While the government and industry efforts so far have helped maintain domestic consumption, foreign buyers have refused to buy U.S. beef.

The U.S. industry sells about 10 percent of its production overseas, worth more than $3 billion in revenue annually.

An Agriculture Department trade team last week visited Japan and South Korea, two of the biggest markets, but those two countries maintained their ban.

Japan’s vice agriculture minister, Yoshiaki Watanabe, yesterday questioned the effectiveness of U.S. safeguards against mad cow disease, suggesting Tokyo would hold out for stricter screening of livestock before lifting an import ban on American beef, the Associated Press reported.

“They are not as effective as steps being taken in Japan,” he said.

A trade team also went to Mexico, one of the three biggest markets, yesterday to discuss a lifting a ban on beef and cattle trade.

The resumption of trade is weighing on cattle future markets. Prices in Chicago dropped almost 20 percent after the mad cow disease announcement, but rose Friday and yesterday. Cattle for February delivery yesterday rose 1.5 cents to 75.3 cents a pound on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.

Exports will have to resume this quarter or prices are likely to take another tumble, said Chuck Levitt, senior livestock analyst at Alaron Trading Corp. in Chicago.

“How the market reacts to all of this kind of hinges on what happens not here but in the rest of the world,” Mr. Levitt said.

“We can stabilize here as long as we get resolution in a timely way.”

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