Bovine Disease Surfaces in U.S.

Times Staff Writer

A cow slaughtered in Washington state has tested positive for “mad cow” disease, marking the first apparent incidence of the degenerative brain illness in the United States, and federal officials were working Tuesday night to determine whether meat from the animal had entered the food supply.

Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman said the animal had been traced to a farm in Mabton, Wash., near Yakima, and that the farm had been quarantined. Although the disease has been linked only to a single animal, Veneman said it was too early to say whether it was an isolated incident.

The announcement caused immediate economic damage to the U.S. beef industry as Japan, the largest overseas purchaser of American beef, temporarily banned U.S. imports.


Eating beef contaminated with “mad cow” disease has been linked to an always-fatal human illness called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, which has struck at least 129 people in Britain and 10 people in other nations since 1995.

“Despite this finding, we remain confident in our food supply,” Veneman told a news conference. The risk to human health was “extremely low,” she said.

Agriculture Department officials said the animal, a Holstein that had ended its productive life as a dairy cow, was slaughtered Dec. 9. It was flagged as a “downer” animal, meaning that it was unable to walk. A federal surveillance program for “mad cow” disease mandates that such animals be segregated for special treatment as potentially ill.

The spinal cord and brain, which are thought to harbor the infectious agent that causes the disease, were sent to a rendering plant rather than into the food supply. Samples were taken for testing.

But the tests suggesting that the animal had “mad cow” disease did not come back until Monday and Tuesday. Meanwhile, the carcass had been sent to a deboning facility and by Dec. 11 had gone to two other plants for further processing.

Agriculture officials said they presumed the meat was intended for human consumption.

Elsa Murano, undersecretary for food safety at the Agriculture Department, said it was possible that the meat had already made it to grocery stores.

“That is what we are still trying to investigate,” she said in a telephone interview. “We should get some answers pretty soon.... A lot of times these types of products are frozen. They may have been made into patties and frozen. I would rather not speculate.”

She also said the risk to the public is low because the brain and spinal material had not entered the food supply. The muscle meat that is used for steaks and hamburgers has “virtually no risk” of carrying the infectious agent, she said.

Agriculture officials will attempt to track the origins of the diseased animal and find others from the same parents, Murano said. Because the disease has most commonly been spread when bone meal made from infected animals is fed to other animals, they will also look at what food was given to the diseased animal and to its herdmates on all farms where it lived.

In addition to spreading through feed, the disease can be transferred from cow to calf, according to some scientists, and it is thought to appear spontaneously on rare occasions in cattle and other animals.

Veneman said the appearance of the disease, known scientifically as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, was confirmed by two tests at an Agriculture Department lab in Iowa. Those tests are considered the “gold standard” for detection of the disease, she said. Nonetheless, samples were on their way by military jet to Britain for confirming tests at a laboratory that specializes in animal diseases. Those tests could take three to five days.

Veneman said she had talked to Tom Ridge, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, adding, “I would emphasize that, based on the information available, this incident is not terrorist-related.”

She also urged Americans to make no changes in their holiday menus. “I plan to serve beef for my Christmas dinner,” she said.

Agriculture officials said detection of the diseased animal, as well as segregation of its spinal and brain matter, showed that federal surveillance systems are effective.

Officials also said they were confident that any outbreak of the disease would not spread, due to a 1997 ban on cattle feed that contains most proteins from mammals. Lack of a similar ban is considered a prime reason the disease spread through Britain in the 1980s and ‘90s, eventually prompting the destruction of 3.7 million cattle. The U.S. banned imports of cattle and beef products from countries with “mad cow” disease beginning in 1989.

George M. Gray, director of Harvard University’s Center for Risk Analysis, said he also believed that the feed ban would limit any spread of the disease in the United States. He said the center conducted a study considering the effects of as many as 500 infected cattle reaching the United States. It concluded that the disease would choke itself off and not spread widely, even if the federal rules for safe animal handling were followed imperfectly.

However, Gray said his group could not determine how many people might contract the human variant of the disease from eating the infected animals.

“The finding of this one animal is clearly a cause for concern, but in and of itself it’s not something to raise a major alarm about,” he said.

An appearance of the disease could raise new concerns about the consumption of meat from “downer” animals. Just last week, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals revived a lawsuit from an animal rights group that claims the government’s policy on the animals does not do enough to protect consumers from “mad cow” disease.

The court, in a 2-1 ruling, said the plaintiff had “successfully alleged a credible threat of harm from downed cattle.”

The “mad cow” incident could also raise new concerns about a practice called advanced meat recovery, in which machinery scrapes or presses edible tissue away from the bone. A 2002 survey by the Agriculture Department of facilities using the technique found that about 35% of the meat taken this way improperly contained spinal cord tissue or other material from the central nervous system. In March, the Agriculture Department began monitoring the technique more aggressively.

At the National Cattlemen’s Beef Assn., chief executive Terry Stokes said demand for beef remained strong in Canada after a single case of “mad cow” disease was discovered there in May. He said he expected that U.S. consumers would show the same calm response.

However, several nations reacted quickly to Tuesday’s news. In addition to Japan, South Korea announced it was halting customs inspections of U.S. beef imports -- a step tantamount to a ban -- and suspended sales of U.S. beef already in markets.

Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Taiwan also announced suspensions of U.S. beef imports, and Australia said it temporarily would hold U.S. beef imports at its border.

Japanese imports of U.S. beef totaled $842 million in 2002, according to the U.S. Meat Export Federation. The United States exports about 10% of its beef, and the loss of any foreign markets would create a glut in U.S. meat supplies.

California exports about $150 million annually in beef and beef products.

U.S. investors reacted quickly to the news, and shares of fast-food companies fell in after-hours trading Tuesday. Shares of McDonald’s Corp., the largest hamburger purveyor, slid more than 3% on the news after closing up 12 cents at $25.28 on the New York Stock Exchange.

In a statement Tuesday night, McDonald’s spokeswoman Lisa Howard said the company’s meat supply had no connection to processors involved in the “mad cow” case.

San Diego-based Jack in the Box Inc. also said it had no connection to the supplier involved in the Washington state case.

CKE Restaurants Inc., the Santa Barbara-based owner of the Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s chains, said it was contacting its vendors. “We’re pretty sure they’re not involved, but we’re still checking into it,” said CKE spokeswoman Christie Cooney.

The U.S. cattle industry is having one of its most profitable years, thanks to popular high-protein diets. Still, livestock analysts say, a single U.S. case of the disease could drive cattle prices sharply lower for days at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, where futures contracts establish prices for U.S. cattle.

Times staff writers Thomas H. Maugh II and Karen Robinson-Jacobs in Los Angeles contributed to this report, as did Reuters and Associated Press.