Mad Cow Disease Found in Washington State
The Associated Press
Tuesday, December 23, 2003; 6:37 PM
The first suspected case of mad cow disease in the United States has been discovered in Washington state, but officials took immediate action Tuesday to ensure the safety of American beef.
"We remain confident in the safety of our food supply," Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman told a hastily assembled news conference.
The announcement could have dramatic economic ramifications for the beef industry after earlier scares in Europe heightened consumers' fears that they could contract the disease from eating meat.
Veneman said a single Holstein cow that was either sick or injured -- thus never destined for the U.S. food supply -- tested presumptively positive for the brain-wasting illness.
"It is too early at this point to say whether or not this will be an isolated case," she said.
Mad cow disease, known also as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, eats holes in the brains of cattle. It sprang up in Britain in 1986 and spread through countries in Europe and Asia, prompting massive destruction of herds and decimating the European beef industry.
A human illness, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, is related to mad cow disease and doctors believe humans get it from eating meat containing infected tissue.
It was not immediately known how this particular cow could have become infected. Scientists believe that the disease is usually transmitted when cattle eat feed containing tissue from a sick animal.
The Food and Drug Administration has banned such feed since 1997.
"This incident is not terrorist-related," Veneman said Tuesday. "I cannot stress this point strongly enough."
Veneman said the apparently diseased cow was found at a farm in Mabton, Wash., about 40 miles southeast of Yakima. She said the farm has been quarantined.
"Even though the risk to human health is minimal, we will take all appropriate actions out of an abundance of caution," she said.
Samples from the cow have been sent to Britain for confirmation of the preliminary mad cow finding, she said.
Mad cow disease has never been found in the United States before this incident despite intensive testing for it.
However, there was a case of mad cow disease in Canada last May that officials described as a single, isolated incident. That cow was suspected to have links to cattle in the United States, but there was never any evidence that the infection had spread into this country.
The United States originally banned imports of Canadian beef, as did other countries. The U.S. and Canadian governments are lobbying international regulators to change the policy of closing borders when mad cow is found so that trade can continue in the case of an isolated incident.
Veneman said a tissue sample from the suspect U.S. cow was taken on Dec. 9 and had been tested at a lab in Ames, Iowa.
She said the Agriculture Department has had safeguards in place since 1990 to check for mad cow disease, and 20,526 cows had been tested in 2003 in the United States.
"This is a clear indication that our surveillance and detection program is working," Veneman said.
She said U.S. beef remains "absolutely safe to eat," adding that she plans to serve it at her Christmas dinner Thursday.
The USDA will frequently update its Web site, and concerned consumer can call a hot line at 1-866-USDA-COM.