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December 23rd: USDA Makes Preliminary Diagnosis of BSE..."Mad Cow Disease"

WASHINGTON, Dec. 23, 2003–Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman today announced that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has diagnosed a presumptive positive case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in an adult Holstein cow in the state of Washington. 

“Despite this finding, we remain confident in the safety of our beef supply,” Veneman said. “The risk to human health from BSE is extremely low.”

Because the animal was non-ambulatory (downer) at slaughter, samples were taken Dec. 9 as part of USDA’s targeted BSE surveillance system. The samples were sent to USDA’s National Veterinary Services Laboratory in Ames, Iowa. Positive results were obtained by both histology (a visual examination of brain tissue via microscope) and immunohistochemistry (the gold standard for BSE testing that detects prions through a staining technique). Test results were returned on Dec. 22 and retested on Dec 23. 

USDA has initiated a comprehensive epidemiological investigation working with state, public health, and industry counterparts to determine the source of the disease. USDA will also work with the Food and Drug Administration as they conduct animal feed investigations, the primary pathway for the spread of BSE. 

This investigation has begun while the sample is being sent to the world reference laboratory in England for final confirmation. USDA will take the actions in accordance with its BSE response plan, which was developed with considerable input from federal, state and industry stakeholders. 

BSE is a progressive neurological disease among cattle that is always fatal. It belongs to a family of diseases known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies. Also included in that family of illnesses is the human disease, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD), which is believed to be caused by eating neural tissue, such as brain and spinal cord, from BSE-affected cattle. USDA has determined that the cow comes from a farm in Washington State and as part of the USDA response plan, the farm has been quarantined. After the animal was slaughtered, the meat was sent for processing and USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service is working to determine the final disposition of products from the animal. 


Dec. 27th... Investigators Trace Diseased Cow to Canada 

WASHINGTON - The Holstein infected with mad cow disease in Washington state was imported into the United States from Canada about two years ago, federal investigators tentatively concluded Saturday. 

Dr. Ron DeHaven, chief veterinarian for the Agriculture Department, said Canadian officials have provided records that indicate the animal was one of a herd of 74 cattle that were shipped from Alberta, Canada, into this country in August 2001 at Eastport, Idaho. It joined the Washington state herd in October 2001. 

"These animals were all dairy cattle and entered the U.S. only about two or two-and-a-half years ago, so most of them are still likely alive," DeHaven said. 

DeHaven emphasized that just because the sick cow was a member of that herd, it does not mean that all 74 animals are infected. 

Canada, which found a case mad cow disease in Alberta in May. 

Just days after the discovery of the nation's first case of mad cow disease, the United States has lost nearly all of its beef exports as more than a dozen countries stopped buying American beef as insurance against potential infection. 

Based on the Canadian records, the diseased cow was 6 1/2-years-old — older than U.S. officials had thought, DeHaven said. U.S. papers on the cow said she was 4- or 4 1/2-years-old. 

The age is significant because the United States and Canada have banned feed that could be the source of infection since 1997. 

Farmers used to feed their animals meal containing tissue from other cattle and livestock to fatten them. Health officials in both countries banned such feed because infected tissue — such as the brain and spinal cord — could be in the meal. 

The Agriculture Department also has recalled an estimated 10,000 pounds of meat cut from the infected cow and from 19 other cows all slaughtered Dec. 9 at Vern's Moses Lake Meat Co., in Moses Lake, Wash. 

Ken Peterson, of the department's Food Safety and Inspection Service, said officials still are trying to track down the meat.

He and other department officials have stressed that the U.S. meat is still considered safe because the animal's brain and spinal cord were removed before the meat was processed. 

Officials say the slaughtered cow was deboned at Midway Meats in Centralia, Ore., and the meat — though no contaminated spinal or brain tissue — was sent to two other plants in the region, identified as Willamette and Interstate Meat, both near Portland, Ore. 

Mad cow disease, formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, is a public health concern because it is related to a human disease, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob. In Britain, 143 people died of the human illness after an outbreak of mad cow in the 1980s. People can get it if they eat meat containing tissue from the brain and spine of an infected cow. 

The animal most likely became sick from eating contaminated feed, so investigators with the Food and Drug Administration, which regulates animal feed, are tracking down what it ate. That is a difficult task because the cow may have gotten the disease years ago, long before it showed signs that it was sick.

Dr. Stephen Sundlof, head of the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine, said the agency also is trying to account for all of the products made from the cow. This includes items like soap and soil. 

FDA is "trying to trace down any byproducts from processing of the cow to keep it from getting into other products that FDA regulates, including feeds," Sundlof said. 

Gregg Doud, an economist for the Denver-based National Cattlemen's Beef Association, said Friday that the United States stands to lose at least $6 billion a year in exports and falling domestic prices because of the sick cow.

"We've lost roughly 90 percent of our export market just in the last three days," Doud said. 

Keith Collins, the Agriculture Department's chief economist, said the market probably will not see the full economic impact of the mad cow case until trading intensifies after the holidays. He has said that 10 percent of U.S. beef is exported. 

Japan, South Korea and Mexico are among the top buyers that banned American beef imports this week after the U.S. government announced it had found a cow in Washington state sick with the brain-wasting illness. 

An international lab in England confirmed that diagnosis Thursday. By Saturday, when tiny Kuwait joined the import ban, the list of countries had topped two dozen. 

A U.S. delegation is leaving Saturday for Japan, which takes about one-third of all U.S. beef exports, and possibly other Asian countries that imposed bans on American meat and livestock this week. The Treasury Department said it is monitoring developments. 

Federal officials on Friday quarantined a herd of 400 bull calves, one of which is an offspring of the sick cow. During its life, the infected cow bore three calves. 

One calf is still at the same dairy near Mabton, Wash., that was the final home of the diseased Holstein cow. That herd was quarantined earlier. Another calf is at a bull calf feeding operation in Sunnyside, Wash., and a third died shortly after being born in 2001, said DeHaven.

"There is the potential that the infected cow could pass the disease onto its calves," he said. No decision has been made on destroying the herds, he said. 

Investigators are focused on finding the birth herd of the cow, since it likely was infected several years ago from eating contaminated feed, DeHaven said. Scientists say the incubation period for the disease in cattle is four or five years. 


December 25th - U.K. Lab Confirms Mad Cow Case in U.S.

WASHINGTON - December 25th - Associated Press - A British lab provided initial independent confirmation Thursday that the United States has its first case of mad cow disease, U.S. 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 U.S. officials to conclude the animal had the brain-wasting disease, U.S. 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. 

Professor Steven Edwards, chief of the British lab, said those 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 likely 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 U.S. 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 told The Associated Press that 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 U.S. hasn't done enough to keep BSE out of the country. 

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. 

"Here's the problem, the feed ban has been grossly violated by feed mills," Stauber said in a telephone interview from his home in Madison, Wis. 

In one such case, 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. 

Stauber also said he believes the ban is ineffective because it exempts blood from cattle, which Stauber said could transmit mad-cow type diseases. Government officials and industry executives have said there is no evidence that animals can be infected from the blood of other animals. 

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 Thursday'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." 

While government and cattle industry officials voiced assurances that the beef on American Christmas holiday tables was safe to eat, the biggest buyers of U.S. beef around the world slapped bans on imports of the American product. 

BSE is caused by a misshapen protein — a prion — that eats holes in a cow's brain. A total of 153 people worldwide have been reported to have contracted the human form of the illness, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.