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Mad Cow Disease in US... Again!(Updated)


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WASHINGTON - An Alabama cow has tested positive for mad cow disease, the third case of the brain-wasting disorder discovered on the nation's cattle farms in the last 2 1/2 years, the Agriculture Department said Monday.

In what could be yet another blow to beef exporters' efforts to pry open foreign markets closed to their products, USDA officials announced that a follow-up test conducted on tissue taken from an older downer cow had confirmed the presence of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, better known as mad cow disease.

Further test results could come later this week.

Regulators said beef from the animal had not entered the food supply.

"This animal did not enter the human food or animal feed chains," USDA Chief Veterinarian John Clifford said.

The diseased animal had lived on the unidentified Alabama farm for less than a year, regulators said.

USDA officials could not immediately say exactly how old the cow was or where it was born.

Regulators are keen to know the animal's age because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration implemented new feed rules in 1997 that were designed to better avoid the spread of the disease through contaminated food.

A veterinarian who examined the cow's teeth estimated the cow's age at "upwards of 10 years," Clifford said.

The cow was buried on the farm. Regulators are looking for offspring as well as the cow's original herd-mates.

The farm, where about 40 head of cattle had been kept, has not been formally quarantined, although Alabama Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks noted: "No animals are leaving this farm until we've finished our investigation."

USDA officials reported the nation's first case of mad cow disease in December 2003, when a cow imported from Canada was found to have had the ailment. Then last June, regulators learned a Texas cow months earlier had been infected with the disease.

After the first case of mad cow was discovered, Japan and other major export markets quickly slammed the door on U.S. beef products.

Regulators responded to the crisis by launching a massive program to better screen for the disease, and more than 650,000 cattle have been tested since June 2004.

Late last year, Japan reopened its market, only to seal its borders once again when a New York processing plant shipped banned animal parts to that country.

Clifford said USDA officials "would not anticipate that this would impact our ongoing negotiations.

'Product is safe'

"Our product is safe," Clifford said. "We've got a number of interlocking safeguards, and Japan has had 20-plus cases" of the disease itself. Edna cattleman Shane Sklar acknowledged that "it's always scary when these things happen," but said he does not expect any "knee-jerk" reactions from U.S. trading partners.

USDA officials first revealed over the weekend they had discovered a possible case of mad cow. That allowed traders to digest the news before trading resumed on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange on Monday.

June live cattle futures rose 0.025 cent to close at 79.125 cents a pound Monday, while May feeder cattle futures were up 0.475 cent to $1.04575 a pound.

"Based on what we saw today on the futures market, I don't think we're anticipating much of a reaction," said Burt Rutherford, a spokesman for the Amarillo-based Texas Cattle Feeders Association.

But before they can become too sanguine, cattle raisers want to know exactly where this cow came from.

"Everybody in the industry is going to be pretty anxious to know that," Rutherford said.

In Texas, the cattle business is a $5.6 billion industry.

The diseased animal was a Santa Gertrudis cow, USDA officials said.

King Ranch breed

That's a breed developed on the King Ranch in Kingsville during the early part of the 20th century to tolerate the South Texas heat and insects, Rutherford said. The discovery of this latest case comes as regulators were preparing to ratchet back the heightened screening program.

Whether the Alabama cow will force them to reconsider those plans is unclear.

Tony Corbo, legislative representative for the Washington-based consumers group Food and Water Watch, argued that the industry would more quickly build confidence abroad if the surveillance program remains in place.

"The trading partners may insist on it," he said.

Food safety groups also questioned regulators' suggestions that the animal would have contracted the disease by eating contaminated food sometime before the feed regulations were imposed in 1997.

Loopholes and errors

"We know through all sorts of government inspections of the feed ban that there are loopholes and errors and noncompliance with that feed ban," said Joseph Mendelson, legal director for the Washington-based Center for Food Safety. "It's the ultimate 'don't look, don't find' policy. And the people who pay the price are consumers," Mendelson said.

Still, cattle industry officials hope diners will continue to order hamburger and steaks, just as they did after the last two mad cow cases were detected.

"I had a hamburger for lunch," said Richard Wortham, executive vice president of the Texas Beef Council. And he said he planned to eat beef again for dinner last night.

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