Another Mad Cow diagnosis?

A potential new case of mad cow disease has been found in the U.S. but tests so far are inconclusive, said U.S. agriculture officials.

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | November 20, 2004

"The inconclusive result does not mean we have found another case of BSE in this country."

—Andrea Morgan

A potential new case of mad cow disease has been found in the U.S. but tests so far are inconclusive, said U.S. agriculture officials.

A preliminary screening test for mad cow disease will be confirmed in 4-7 days, and few additional details will be released until then.

Despite the public message from agriculture officials that this shouldn't cause alarm, the news has already economically rattled the cattle industry, meat companies and hamburger restaurant chains. Thursday's announcement about the inconclusive test sent cattle prices tumbling. Shares of McDonald's, Wendy's, and other restaurant chains slumped, as did those of U.S. meat producers such as Tyson Foods.

The inconclusive test for mad cow disease, or Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) - a slowly progressive, degenerative, fatal disease affecting the central nervous system of adult cattle - was received on a rapid screening test used as part of a national BSE surveillance program that was enhanced after the first U.S. case of BSE was discovered in December 2003. The cow was bought from a farm in Canada.

A variant form of the brain-wasting disease in humans is believed to be caused by eating contaminated beef products from BSE-affected cattle.

Until final test results come back next week, U.S. agriculture officials aren't ready to say the nation has found its second case of mad cow disease.

"The inconclusive result does not mean we have found another case of BSE in this country," said Andrea Morgan, associate deputy administrator of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

"Inconclusive result" was the same term the agency used in June when two potential cases turned out to be false alarms.

"Inconclusive results are a normal component of screening tests, which are designed to be extremely sensitive so they will detect any sample that could possibly be positive," he said.

Tissue samples were sent to the USDA's National Veterinary Services Laboratories - a national BSE research lab that will conduct more tests.

The USDA has refused to release further details specific to the test, giving no information about the location or origin of the slaughtered animal. The announcement led to a flurry of assertions by state agriculture officials that the animal did not come from their states.

APHIS has begun internal steps to begin tracing the potentially diseased animal. "However, it is important to note that this animal did not enter the food or feed chain," 'said Morgan.

If tests come back positive for BSE, the USDA has indicated it will provide additional information about the animal and its origin.

Despite releasing no further details on the potential case, the USDA has offered public reassurance that the country's beef supply is safe. Cattle industry groups joined the government in cautioning against public alarm.

Inconclusive tests are to be expected, said Morgan. "Screening tests are often used in both human and animal health and inconclusives are not unexpected. These tests cast a very wide net and many end up negative during further testing.

"And some subset of these animals may even turn out to be positive for BSE. While none of us wants to see that happen, that is not unexpected either. Our surveillance program is designed to test as many animals as we can in the populations that are considered to be at high risk for BSE."

APHIS has tested more than 113,000 cattle since an enhanced surveillance program began June 1 on cattle considered at high risk for BSE.

In addition to this enhanced testing, the U.S. has taken measures to strengthen public health safeguards. There is a ban on imports of live cattle and other ruminants from high-risk countries. Since 1997, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has prohibited the use of most mammalian protein in cattle feed.

The U.S. has conducted surveillance tests for mad cow disease for more than a decade. Non-ambulatory cattle have been banned from the human food chain.

In the only confirmed U.S. case, a Canadian-born Holstein was found to have been infected in Washington state last year. More than 40 countries cut off imports of U.S. beef and more than 700 additional cattle in Washington state, Oregon and Idaho were killed for a precaution.

Ranches and businesses dependent on beef are still feeling financial effects from that. This week's announcement comes less than a month after U.S. negotiators reached tentative agreements with both Japan and Taiwan to resume U.S. beef and beef product shipments. Exports make up about $3.8 billion of America's $40 billion a year beef industry.

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