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Canadian Officials Scramble for Clues in 'Mad Cow' Case

Two more farms are quarantined amid questions about how the bovine became infected. U.S. beef supply is safe, agriculture chief says.

May 22, 2003|Aaron Zitner and Elizabeth Levin | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Scrambling to trace the history of a bovine afflicted with "mad cow" disease, Canadian authorities quarantined two additional farms Wednesday where the animal had spent time and tried to determine whether other cattle had contracted the brain-wasting disease.

Still unanswered is the question of whether the 8-year-old cow ate tainted feed during its lifetime. If so, additional cattle may have contracted the disease from the same feed without yet showing signs of the illness.

"How this animal became infected at this point remains a mystery that we're trying to unravel," said Dr. Claude Lavigne, an official with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

He said no meat from the affected cow had entered the food supply, but he could not rule out the possibility that other diseased animals would be found. "It's possible that we might find some more, and that's why we are looking. But at this point we haven't found any," Lavigne said.

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.

The discovery of the animal, which Canadian officials announced Tuesday, has spooked the beef industry and investors because it is apparently the first case of the disease in an animal born in North America. Britain had to undertake a mass slaughter of its cows in the 1980s and 1990s after tainted feed spread the disease through its herds.

Eating beef contaminated with mad cow disease agents can cause a fatal, brain-degenerating illness in humans called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, which has affected 129 people, mostly in Europe. Health concerns prompted U.S. officials on Tuesday to ban all beef imports from Canada.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ann M. Veneman on Wednesday sought to assure consumers that the nation's food supply was safe. She said that she had an American steak Tuesday night and that she would not hesitate to eat beef from Canada.

Consumer groups and others said the incident revealed problems in the system for preventing the spread of mad cow disease, which is formally called bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE.

The affected Canadian cow was flagged for examination because it appeared to be sick before it was slaughtered Jan. 31. Its carcass was sent to a rendering plant. But its tissue samples were not studied until last week, because Canadian laboratories give priority to animals destined for the food supply.

"Somehow it took four months to have it tested and to tell the people.... That's absurd," said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.).

Consumer groups called for U.S. officials to increase the number of cattle tested for BSE and to test all imported animal feed. "The U.S. currently tests less than 20,000 cows a year out of a total herd of 100 million," said Mike Hansen, a senior research associate at the Consumers Union's Consumer Policy Institute. "By contrast in Europe, every single animal above a given age gets tested for this fatal brain-wasting disease, which is transmissible to humans."

The National Farmers Union, a group of farmers and ranchers, said beef should be labeled with its country of origin so consumers know whether the product comes from a country with food-safety problems.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture sent a four-member team to help investigate how the animal contracted BSE.

Lavigne said a system was in place to prevent the transmission of disease through feed. Because British cows contracted BSE by eating tainted feed, Canada and the United States in 1997 barred ranchers from giving feed to cows that includes mammalian protein.

Canada also tries to control imports of animal feed. In 1996, the nation said it would accept bone meal only from countries that it determined to be free of mad cow disease. Other limits on bone meal imports existed before 1996, but at times they were less restrictive.

Lavigne said he did not know whether someone had skirted or violated those rules, allowing the disease to slip into the country. He also could not say whether the animal had eaten material reprocessed from restaurant waste.

''We are dying to find out the answers to this question, and this is certainly something that ... the investigation should reveal as much as possible," he said.

But officials still do not know all the places where the affected cow lived. It spent its last three years on one farm, and its movements in the previous five years were unclear.

Canadian officials believe it was born in the United States or Canada. Because of an import ban on live animals, chances are "very, very close to zero" that the affected animal had been imported from Britain or another country known to have widespread mad cow disease, Lavigne said.

Canadian officials have gone as far as tracking down the animal's hide, which had been sent to a tannery.

Branding marks pointed officials to at least one farm where the animal lived, "but at this point we haven't exhausted all the possibilities of herds where this animal might have been," Lavigne said.

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