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'Mad Cow' Case Spurs Bans on Canadian Beef

Alberta herd to be tested and destroyed after a lone cow is found to be infected. U.S. officials say they don't expect the disease to spread.

May 21, 2003|Elizabeth Levin | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Lab tests confirmed a lone case of "mad cow" disease in Canada's chief cattle region Tuesday, prompting the United States to ban all beef imports from a nation heavily dependent on U.S. consumers.

News that the fatal neurological disease had struck an Alberta ranch sent beef prices tumbling and threatened to devastate an industry that exports more than half a million tons, or 80%, of its beef to the U.S. annually. Agriculture officials scrambled to reassure Americans that there was little chance of the infection spreading, now that they had barred all imports of cattle, beef, beef-based products and animal feed from Canada. Officials also said that the infected animal never reached the food supply and that it was an isolated case. Its herd-mates would be tested and slaughtered.

"Risk to human health and the possibility of transmission to animals in the United States is very low," Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman said.

Still, the disclosure rocked the marketplace. It was long believed that Canada and the U.S. had adopted feeding practices that would prevent the disease from spreading in North America. The disease has never been found in the U.S.; Tuesday's case was the first reported in Canada in a decade.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday May 23, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 50 words Type of Material: Correction
"Mad cow" disease -- An article in some editions of Wednesday's Section A about "mad cow" disease erroneously called Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease the human manifestation of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, the formal name for mad cow disease. In fact, a variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease is the illness linked to mad cow disease.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday May 31, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 65 words Type of Material: Correction
"Mad cow" disease -- Recent articles in Section A and the Business section have stated that variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans is caused by eating products contaminated with the agent that causes bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or "mad cow" disease. Although scientists believe that there is strong evidence that eating such products can cause a new variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, the link is not definitively established.

Canadian officials are investigating the origin of the diseased 8-year-old cow, which had spent the last three years on a farm of 150 cattle in northern Alberta. Its location during the previous five years is still unknown, according to Debbie Barr of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

"There is no reason to believe that there is any risk to human health," Barr said. "The animal absolutely did not enter the human feed chain."

Canada, along with Mexico, is the United States' main cattle-trading partner. Last year, the U.S. imported 1.7 million head of Canadian cattle, three-quarters of all U.S. beef imports.

Although Canada accounts for the largest chunk of all U.S. beef imports, only 7% of beef consumed by Americans is from Canada.

Still, the effects of Tuesday's disclosure were felt on Wall Street. Investors pounded stocks of hamburger chains and meat processors on fears that some Americans might cut back on their beef consumption.

McDonald's Corp. stock slid $1.21, or 6.7%, to $16.95 on the New York Stock Exchange, while rival Wendy's International slid $2.01, or 6.6%, to $28.55.

McDonald's and some other companies issued statements seeking to assure consumers that their meat is safe. McDonald's said it doesn't import Canadian beef to the United States.

Today Japan and South Korea banned imports of meat and related products of cattle, sheep and goats from Canada. South Korea's ban included Canadian dairy products.

Bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, as mad cow disease is formally known, has reached crisis proportions only in Britain, where it was first identified in 1986. The cause of the disease is unknown, although it is thought to spread through contaminated meat and meat products. There is no known cure.

In 1997, the United States and Canada placed a ban on animal feed made with mammalian protein for ruminant animals such as cows, sheep and goats. This regulation is considered the country's major defense against BSE.

The U.S. and Canada also have banned imports of cattle, meat and animal feeds from countries where BSE has been a problem, including Britain and Japan. The regulations on feed production make the spread of BSE in the United States unlikely, according to Robert Rohwer, director of the neurovirology laboratory at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Baltimore.

"It is quite possible that BSE could be introduced occasionally just because the international commerce in bovine products is enormous," Rohwer said. "As long as the barrier is in place, it will prevent further spread."

Scientists believe that Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease is the human form of BSE. It is a degenerative, fatal brain disorder caused by eating BSE-contaminated cattle products.

As of April 2, 2002, 125 cases of CJD had been reported in Britain, France, Ireland and Italy -- all countries where BSE was occurring, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The only previous case of BSE detected in Canada occurred in 1993 in a cow that had been imported from Britain.

The animal and its herd-mates were destroyed, and there was no further spread of the disease.

*

Times staff writers Monte Morin and Tom Petruno in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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