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USDA Confirms 2nd U.S. Case of Mad Cow Disease

The announcement comes seven months after tests indicated the animal was not infected. The case is said to pose no threat to the public.

June 25, 2005|Johanna Neuman and Jerry Hirsch | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Ending seven months of uncertainty, the U.S. Agriculture Department confirmed Friday that a cow first suspected of having mad cow disease in November had tested positive -- the second such case identified in the United States.

Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns, calling U.S. beef "the safest in the world," said the case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy posed no threat to public health because the animal was not sent to a food processing plant.

"The BSE threat to humans in this country is so remote that there is a better chance you'll get hurt crossing the street to get to the grocery store than by the beef you buy in the grocery store," he said.

Johanns praised the USDA's testing regimen for BSE, saying positive tests were so rare it would be like "finding a needle in a haystack."

He also announced that department scientists had been ordered to develop a new protocol for dealing with cases in which initial tests for mad cow disease were inconclusive. And he said the USDA would reexamine the system for storing the remains of suspect animals.

The latest case of mad cow disease, however, raised concerns in the cattle industry that consumers would turn to poultry and pork and that trading partners would continue to ban U.S. beef from their markets.

Consumers largely shrugged off the previous U.S. incident, the discovery in December 2003 of a Washington state dairy cow infected with BSE.

That cow was imported from Canada, which earlier had a BSE discovery, and was born before a 1997 Food and Drug Administration rule prohibiting the feeding of ruminant meat and bone meal to cattle. The use of remains from cows, sheep and other ruminants as feed is suspected to be one of the key ways the disease is spread.

USDA officials refused to identify where the second infected animal was when it was slaughtered in November. They said they were investigating the cow's herd mates to determine how it got the disease. The animal reportedly was a Texas beef cow, born before the ban, that was slaughtered for pet food.

Food safety experts said that there still was little chance of consumers eating contaminated meat, which is linked to a human form of BSE known as variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. The disease in humans has no treatment and is always fatal. It has affected 153 people worldwide, most of them in Britain. That country has found more than 180,000 animals infected with BSE.

By comparison, this was the second case found among an estimated 100 million head of cattle in this country.

"Happily, the risk of contracting the human form of mad cow disease is minuscule," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington advocacy group.

But DeWaal criticized the nation's lack of a mandatory animal tracking system.

"This cow was exposed at a time early in its life," she said. "Because we don't have a tracking program, we don't know where it was born, where it grew up and what other animals might have been exposed."

DeWaal said the USDA had delayed implementation of such a system until 2009, though Canada was able to move from a voluntary to a mandatory animal tracking system in one year.

And critics said that in the case of the second infected animal, it was only after prodding by the department's inspector general that officials took the action that led to Friday's announcement.

On Nov. 18, the USDA announced that two preliminary mad cow tests on an animal were inconclusive. More sophisticated tests were ordered, and on Nov. 23, officials announced that the new tests were negative. Officials said they were confident the animal was free of mad cow disease.

In February, the Consumers Union advocacy group urged the USDA to use a more sophisticated method called the "Western blot" test. This month, the USDA's inspector general also recommended using the Western blot test, which resulted in the announcement that the animal had mad cow disease.

Some ranchers and animal rights groups accused the administration Friday of foot-dragging on key reforms promised after the first cow tested positive in December 2003.

They said the government had not yet imposed a permanent ban on allowing nonambulatory animals, called downers, into the food supply. Nor had they taken steps to ensure that cattle feed was free of animal parts.

"This administration's response to mad cow disease appears to be more public relations than public health," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), who called for a congressional investigation into "what went wrong."

Officials proposed a ban on downer cattle after the first mad cow case in the United States was discovered, and the USDA received 22,000 comments, mostly positive. But department officials made no move to finalize the ban, and recently talked about easing the rules on downer cattle.

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