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USDA Defends Its 'Mad Cow' Disease Efforts

Some in the beef industry say tough new safety measures may not go far enough to appease the export market.

January 01, 2004|Johanna Neuman and Evelyn Iritani | Times Staff Writer

"This is a Japanese political issue," he said. "The Japanese farmers are saying, 'We get our cattle tested 100%, why not the U.S.?' "

Scientists believe that BSE, a fatal disease that rots the brain, is transmitted when cows eat feed contaminated by infected animal parts -- a practice the USDA banned in 1997. A rare and deadly human form of the illness known as variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease has been linked to the consumption of contaminated cattle products.

Although not yet confirmed by DNA tests, authorities believe the infected Washington state cow was born in Canada a few months before that government also imposed a feed ban.

U.S. agriculture officials are searching for 73 head of cattle believed to have entered the United States with the diseased animal. Eight other animals that entered the U.S. with the diseased cow have been located and are under quarantine in Washington state.

Not content to wait for U.S. government reforms, some meatpackers are already going beyond legal requirements to ensure traceability of animals from the farm to the dinner table.

Swift & Co., the third-largest beef processor in the United States, announced on Christmas Eve -- one day after lab tests showed the Holstein to be diseased -- that it was going to begin using a computerized tracking system that would allow it to quickly find and isolate ill animals.

The system uses a retinal scanning program coupled with a global positioning system.

"Particularly in Japan, driven by the [BSE] outbreak there, distributors and retailers are finding that they have to give customers traceability," said John Cravens of Optibrands Ltd. in Fort Collins, Colo., which markets the retinal scanner. "The need to trace the animal back to the farm is just the cost of doing businesses overseas."

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