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Mad cow disease found in Japan

September 26, 2001 All Things Considered (8:00 PM ET) - NPR

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

NOAH ADAMS, host:

And I'm Noah Adams.

Mad cow disease appears to be on the march again. After decimating cattle in Britain, the disease spread to many countries in continental Europe. Now Japan is reporting a confirmed case, the first in Asia. As NPR's Joe Palca reports, this is probably not the last case in Asia, and it may be the first of a host of new cases around the world. JOE PALCA reporting:

Japanese officials are not sure how a five-year-old dairy cow in the Chiba prefecture got mad cow disease, but experts in the United States say the most likely explanation is tainted animal feed. Will Hueston says all the outbreaks in the world so far have been feed-related. Hueston, who heads a new Center for Animal Health and Food Safety at the University of Minnesota, says feed becomes contaminated when it contains material from the carcass of an infected animal. Now feed that may possibly be contaminated with mad cow disease, what scientists call BSE, is still produced because it can be safely fed to chickens or hogs, farm animals that don't get BSE. But sometimes in international commerce the distinction between feed intended for cows and feed intended for chickens gets lost, says Hueston.

Mr. WILL HUESTON (University of Minnesota): Well, if you ship feed to another country, somewhere else in the world, and you say this can only be used in chickens and you end up with several tons of feed that are unused, well, capitalism says, 'Waste not, want not,' so the feed gets incorporated into the feed for another species of animal, not recognizing that it may pose a risk.

PALCA: And since tainted feed is likely to be eaten by many animals, once one cow is discovered with BSE, it's virtually certain more will follow. Hueston believes even if his scenario proves wrong in the Japanese case, it will prove correct elsewhere, and other countries in the world will soon be having their own problems with BSE.

Mr. HUESTON: What we're seeing unfolding in Japan will be repeated in additional countries, unfortunately, over the next two to three years. It's most likely that there are an additional 10 to perhaps 15 countries where there's BSE in the cattle and they've just not yet discovered it.

PALCA: All this naturally raises the question of whether BSE is likely to turn up in this country, or whether it's already here and just not discovered. Pierluigi Gambetti studies human diseases related to BSE at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. He says he doesn't know whether BSE exists in the United States.

Mr. PIERLUIGI GAMBETTI (Case Western Reserve University): I know only that all the evidence available concerning these diseases, especially BSE, is that really is very difficult to tell unless you do systematic, aggressive testing off the animals that are slaughtered and then consumed.

PALCA: But federal officials have decided that testing all slaughtered animals in this country would be both enormously expensive and extremely inefficient. Linda Dettweiler(ph) heads the US Department of Agriculture's efforts to deal with BSE. She says the disease typically shows up in cows three years old and over. Most cattle slaughtered in this country are younger than a year and a half old. And Dettweiler says no animal that young has tested positive for BSE.

Ms. LINDA DETTWEILER (US Department of Agriculture): We're targeting our surveillance to the highest-risk population, and that would be in the ones that have neurologic disease or in those animals that are down or are not ambulatory, those that cannot get up.

PALCA: Testing of these high-risk animals has not revealed a single case of BSE in this country. Dettweiler says USDA has taken numerous steps to protect US livestock, including restricting feed imports from countries where BSE has been detected. Will Hueston says these steps have made the chance of seeing BSE in this country very small, but not zero.

Mr. HUESTON: I study disease patterns, and one thing I've learned is never say never. So we have implemented a lot of safety measures. At the same time we have to be vigilant for the possibility that we may have missed something.

PALCA: Health experts like Hueston hope it's not something important. Joe Palca, NPR News, Washington.


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