Second U.S. mad cow suspected

WASHINGTON, DC, June 28, 2004 (ENS): Another cow infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease, has been inconclusively identified by U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) authorities, but the official announcement late Friday was more notable for what it did not reveal to the public than for what it did say.

Dr. John Clifford, deputy administrator of the USDA Animal Plant Health Inspection Service's Veterinary Services Program, would only say that the agency received notice that an "inconclusive BSE test result was received on a screening test" used as part of the government's surveillance program.

"Tissue samples are now being sent to USDA's National Veterinary Services Laboratories, the National BSE Reference Lab which will render additional testing on this sample," said Clifford, who expects results sometime after Tuesday night.

"The animal in question did not enter the food chain, and the carcass is being held," Clifford said.

While saying that the agency wanted to be "transparent" Clifford would say no more. He would not disclose what type of animal was tested, where the animal was from, or which lab did the testing.

Clifford would say only that a positive test "is not at all unexpected."

"The inconclusive result does not in and of itself mean that we have found another case of BSE in this country," he said. "Inconclusive results are a normal component of most screening tests which are designed to be extremely sensitive so they will detect any sample that could possibly be positive."

"Second, no matter how the additional testing comes back, USDA remains confident in the safety of the U.S. beef supply," said Clifford.

Transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, such as mad cow disease and its human form, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD), are spread by prions - abnormally shaped proteins that originate as regular components of neurological tissues in animals. They are not cellular organisms or viruses, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Mad cow disease spreads from one animal to another by consumption of feed that has been contaminated by these prions, such as blood or meat meal that contains nervous system tissue from an infected animal. The human form of the disease can be transmitted if a human being eats BSE infected meat, or possibly through blood transfusions.

The ban on nervous system tissue in the human food chain, "provides the utmost protection to public health should another case of BSE ever be detected" in the United States, Clifford said.

Safety measures include a ban on the use of most mammalian protein in cattle feed that has been in place since 1997.

After a BSE infected cow was discovered in Washington state last December, the USDA banned downer cattle from the human food chain and tightened the process control for establishments using advanced meat recovery systems. The agency prohibited the air injection stunning of cattle that can force nervous system tissue into muscle tissues.

The practice of holding the carcasses until BSE test results have been confirmed negative was also put in place early this year.

U.S. trading partners around the world have banned imports of U.S. beef, costing the beef industry dearly. The total value of global beef exports in 2003 is about $3 billion.

In 2003, 10 percent of U.S. beef production was exported - 3.6 percent to Japan, 2.4 percent to Mexico, 2.3 percent to South Korea, 0.9 percent to Canada and the remaining 0.8 percent to other countries.

All major export destinations except Canada suspended imports of U.S. beef. Although Mexico has now reopened its border to U.S. beef, most other countries that banned it have not. Japan requires BSE testing of 100 percent of all animals that provide beef for export to Japan before it will reopen its border to U.S. beef.

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