- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 18, 2004

The U.S. Department of Agriculture yesterday said it is testing a suspect animal for mad cow disease and would know within a week whether it has discovered the second case in the United States.

The animal did not enter the food chain, the USDA said.

The announcement followed at least two screening tests conducted as part of a wider program to determine the prevalence of the disease in the United States. USDA scientists now are conducting a more precise test.

“The inconclusive result does not mean we have found another case of [mad cow disease] in this country,” said Andrea Morgan, associate deputy administrator for veterinary services at the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

But a positive result would not be “unexpected” when final results are available in four to seven days, she said.

“Our surveillance program is designed to test as many animals as we can in the populations that are considered to be at high risk for BSE,” she said.

The USDA would not say where the animal was discovered.

Mad cow disease, officially known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, is a fatal disorder that attacks the central nervous system of adult cattle. A form of it has infected humans who eat diseased tissue, though no known cases have been contracted in the United States.

Animal health inspectors discovered the country’s first, and so far only, confirmed case of the disease in December, causing major export markets to ban American beef, damaging the meat-packing industry and briefly roiling cattle futures. U.S. consumers, however, did not shy away from eating red meat.

Since the December case, the USDA has instituted new safeguards to keep infected animals and the tissue most likely to transmit the disease out of the food supply.

“Regardless of the outcome of this test result, U.S. beef is safe,” said J. Patrick Boyle, president of the American Meat Institute, an association for meat packers.

Consumer groups, however, repeatedly have complained that the USDA and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have not done enough to ensure human and animal safety.

“The size of the risk to consumers is unknown at the moment. It could be very small, or it could be much larger,” said Michael Hansen, senior research associate at Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports magazine.

Mr. Hansen criticized USDA testing, which he said was not extensive enough, and FDA rules, which he said failed to adequately prevent the spread of mad cow through animal feed.

Since June 1, the USDA has tested 113,000 animals and, including yesterday’s announcement, reported three “inconclusive” test results, officials said. Two animals that in June tested inconclusive later were proven disease-free, but yesterday’s announcement was based on more thorough screening.

The USDA plans to screen as many as 268,000 animals in a 12- to 18-month period.

There were 103.6 million cattle in the United States as of July 1, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

The USDA would not say where the case announced yesterday was discovered, pending final test results. The first U.S. case was discovered in a Washington state dairy cow in December 2003.

Cattle futures for February delivery dropped 2.93 cents to 85.98 cents a pound on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. The 3.3 percent fall was the biggest since March 11.

Shares of McDonald’s fell 45 cents to $29.95 on the New York Stock Exchange.

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