British lab confirms that mad cow disease is in US
Authorities seek birth herd;hina joins import ban
WASHINGTON -- A British lab provided initial independent confirmation yesterday that the United States has its first case of mad cow disease, US agriculture officials said. Federal investigators labored to trace the path the infected animal took from birth to slaughter.
Scientists at the Veterinary Laboratories Agency in Weybridge, England, told the Agriculture Department they concur with the reading of tests on the stricken Holstein cow that led US officials to conclude the animal had the brain-wasting disease, US officials said.
"We are considering this confirmation," said USDA spokeswoman Alisa Harrison, adding that the English lab still will conduct its own test using another sample from the cow's brain. Final test results on the cow from Washington state were expected by the end of the week, she said.
Japan, South Korea, and Mexico, the three top buyers of the $3 billion worth of beef the United States exports annually, quickly suspended American beef imports after the suspected mad cow case was announced. China, a potentially huge market for US beef, followed yesterday.
Professor Steven Edwards, chief of the British lab, said the test results already have been given to USDA. But Edwards refused to disclose whether the tests show that the animal had mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy.
Meanwhile, Harrison said, investigators were working through the holiday to prevent a potential outbreak of the deadly disease and to calm public fears about the food supply. Government officials have said there is no threat to the food supply because the cow's brain and spine -- nerve tissue where scientists say the disease is found -- were removed before it was sent on for processing.
Humans can contract a fatal variant of mad cow disease by eating infected beef products, but experts say muscle cuts of beef -- including steaks and roasts -- are safe. Also hamburger ground from labeled cuts, such as chuck or round, poses little health risk, experts say.
"Even though this is Christmas Day, federal officials are working on the investigation," she said.
The government is trying to find the herd the cow was raised with, since the cow probably was sickened several years ago from eating feed made partly from an infected cow. The incubation period in cattle is four to five years, said Dr. Stephen Sundlof of the US Food and Drug Administration.
Authorities also want to know where the animals were transported and have narrowed their search to two unidentified livestock markets in Washington state, where the sick cow could have been purchased.
Government sources said the cow lived since 2001 at the Sunny Dene Ranch in Mabton, Wash., a town 40 miles south of Yakima. Officials have said a dairy farm near Mabton is under quarantine and that its herd would be slaughtered if the mad cow diagnosis was confirmed.
Authorities also were scrambling to find where the meat cut from the animal was sent. The Agriculture Department already has issued a recall for 10,410 pounds of beef slaughtered Dec. 9 at Vern's Moses Lake Meat Co. in Moses Lake, Wash.
Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman said the recall was an extra precaution. But the government came under criticism on two fronts. John Stauber, the author of "Mad Cow U.S.A.," said the nation hasn't done enough to keep BSE out.
Cattle get sick by eating feed that contains tissue from the brain and spine of infected animals. The United States has banned such feed since 1997.
In one violation of the feed ban, X-Cel Feeds Inc., of Tacoma, Wash., admitted in a consent decree in July that it violated FDA regulations designed to prevent the possible spread of the disease.
Agriculture officials said that only two out of some 1,800 firms are not in compliance with the ban, a significant improvement since 1997.
Dr. Stanley Prusiner, a neurologist at the University of California at San Francisco who discovered the proteins that cause mad cow disease, said he warned Veneman recently that it was "just a matter of time" before the disease was found in the United States.
He said he told her the United States should immediately start testing every cow that shows signs of illness and eventually every single cow upon slaughter, The New York Times reported in yesterday's editions.
Prusiner, a Nobel laureate, told the Times that fast, accurate and inexpensive tests are available, including one that he has patented through his university that he says could add 2 or 3 cents a pound to the cost of beef.
The scientist said Veneman is getting poor advice from USDA scientists and did not seem to share his sense of urgency when he met with her six weeks ago, after several months of seeking a meeting.
"We have met with many experts in this area, including Dr. Prusiner," Julie Quick, a spokesman for Veneman told the Times. "We welcome as much scientific input and insight as we can get on this very important issue. We want to make sure that our actions are based on the best available science."
BSE is caused by a misshapen protein called a prion that eats holes in a cow's brain. Worldwide, 153 people have been reported to have contracted the human form of the illness, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.