Fears of Mad-Cow Disease - Send Cattle Prices Sliding

Send Cattle Prices Sliding

By AARON LUCCHETTI

Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Fears that the death of an Indiana man may be linked to "mad cow" disease sent grain and livestock futures tumbling Wednesday. The rout was triggered by a local newspaper report that 62-year-old Joseph Gabor of Schererville, Ind., a small town near Chicago, died of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a rare neurological disorder. The disease is believed to be caused by the same agent that causes bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad-cow disease, although scientists haven't proved that the agent, a distorted protein molecule known as a prion, can be transmitted from one species to another.

A spokesman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta said it is unlikely that Mr. Gabor's death was linked to mad-cow disease, since none of the 250 cases of Creutzfeldt-Jakob that occur in the U.S. yearly has been linked to mad-cow disease. Officials from both the Agriculture Department and the CDC said there are no confirmed cases of bovine spongiform encephalopathy in cattle in the U.S.

The autopsy on Mr. Gabor, who died March 30, was performed at Indiana-University Purdue University at Indianapolis. Doctors there wouldn't comment. Doctors at the Indiana State Department of Health said they were expecting to get a copy of the death certificate to conduct an investigation on the case. The CDC said it will investigate if asked to do so by the state.

Epidemic in Britain

Speculation that Mr. Gabor's death might be linked to mad-cow disease drove the price of cattle traded on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange down by the maximum allowable amount of 1.5 cents to 68.8 cents a pound for the April contract. Corn and wheat were also hit hard by the news.

An epidemic of mad-cow disease in British cattle herds touched off widespread concerns about beef consumption, and a currently popular book in the U.S., "Deadly Feasts," documents the gruesome search for the agent that causes both mad-cow and Creutzfeldt-Jakob diseases.

In Britain, from 1986 to 1995, an estimated 155,000 cattle in 33,000 herds were found to have bovine spongiform encephalopathy. The disease was believed to have been caused by feeding cows protein derived from sheep that died of scrapie, a disease that is also caused by the same agent. The epidemic peaked in 1993 at almost 1,000 cases a week. Currently, fewer than 300 cases are occurring per week in Britain, the CDC said.

Most scientists agree that mad-cow disease, scrapie and Creutzfeldt-Jakob are caused by different versions of the peculiar, infectious prions. Neither a bacteria nor a virus, prions produce a spongy plaque in the brain that eventually leads, in Creutzfeldt-Jakob, to senility and death in its victims, most of whom are older.

British authorities had earlier denied that outbreaks in Britain of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease had any relation to mad-cow disease. But after four dairy workers and six young adults died of the disease, the British government reversed itself and said they may have been infected by eating beef from infected cows.

Link to Bone Meal?

Mr. Gabor had been diagnosed with the disease about three weeks before his death, said Sharon Burke, Mr. Gabor's daughter. Mr. Gabor, a retired electrician who used bone meal to help fertilize his rose garden, had frequent contact with bone-meal dust. There has been speculation that prions could be transmitted from sheep or cows to human beings through channels such as bone meal made from infected animals. "He never wore a mask and used to grind up the soil and make a big cloud of dust," his daughter said.

Some analysts said traders overreacted to the speculative connection between Mr. Gabor's death and the use of bone meal. "I'm distressed when the market reacts so violently to things that have not been fully covered as far as the evidence," said Charles Levitt, an analyst at Alaron Trading Corp. in Chicago. "But the trader doesn't have time to sift through the background before he has to act."

This isn't the first time U.S. livestock markets have been moved by mad-cow fears. Last April, the market plunged when Oprah Winfrey did a show on the mad-cow scare in Britain.

To date, there have been 16 reported cases of humans who have died in Britain of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. One problem in assessing the risk is that Creutzfeldt-Jakob has an incubation period of as much as 15-20 years before symptoms occur. Moreover, it isn't known how much tainted meat a person has to have eaten to be at high risk of becoming infected.

Vulnerable Time

Several doctors said it was unlikely that a person could catch the disease by inhaling bone meal. "In England, it was felt that people may have been eating the meat from animals that had this disease; I don't think there's been any case of [Creutzfeldt-Jakob] where the known cause" was from inhaling, said H. Leon Thacker, a veterinary pathologist at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.

Analysts said the news hit the livestock and meat market at a vulnerable time. Last month, a virus that hit hogs in Taiwan effectively wiped out the herd exported to Japan. Also, the price of cattle has been undermined by traders' estimates that the USDA's monthly livestock report, to be released Friday, will show a 5% to 10% increase in cattle inventory on feedlots.

Separately, the Food and Drug Administration is scheduled to release a draft rule Thursday that would prohibit using tissues from animals such as cows, sheep and goats in animal feeds. The draft rule, scheduled to go into effect in coming weeks if approved, is the latest in a series of preventive measures by regulators, which includes a voluntary industry moratorium on the use of meat and bone meal to feed cattle. In the late 1980s, the USDA prohibited the import of animal feed from countries where the cattle disease had been found, officials said.


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