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Japan to Test 1 Million Cattle for 'Mad Cow'; Concerns Grow After First Case Botched

September 20, 2001 The Washington Post by Kathryn Tolbert
The Japanese government announced today it will test 1 million cattle for "mad cow" disease, expanding its efforts to track a possible outbreak after a dairy cow tested positive for the illness in the first reported case in Asia.

By testing every cow over 30 months old that is butchered for meat, the government is seeking to reassure the public that it can guarantee food safety after a blunder last week in which the diseased cow was sent to a feed factory and processed into bone meal. The feed has not been distributed, according to officials, who then banned the use of bone meal as cattle feed.

"We take full responsibility for the anxiety we have caused," Agriculture Minister Tsutomu Takebe told a budget committee today in the Diet, Japan's parliament. "I will take a leadership role and put all my efforts into easing people's concerns." He attributed the mistake to a bureaucratic problem. One ministry interpreted government regulations as meaning the cow would be destroyed; another believed it was up to the factory to decide whether to use the carcass, Takebe said. Ministry officials said the bone meal was to be used to feed pigs and chickens, which do not transmit the disease.

Japanese officials sent a sample of brain tissue from the cow to Britain for further tests. The United States, which had banned Japanese beef and beef products because of foot-and-mouth disease, added cooked beef products to the list on Tuesday. China, Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore and the Philippines have also halted imports of Japanese beef.

Mad cow disease, also called bovine spongiform encephalopathy, is a fatal degenerative brain disease. It passes to cows through feed containing contaminated meat and bone meal and has ravaged herds in Europe. About 100 people have died from its human form, called new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

A few months ago, officials were so confident that mad cow disease could never occur here that they forced a halt to a European Commission report showing that Japan was at risk of an outbreak.

Japan stopped importing animal feed from Britain in 1996, 10 years after the disease was first detected there, but continued to buy feed from other European countries where mad cow disease has occurred. In January it suspended imports of beef, processed beef products and animal bone meal feed from European Union countries.

An Agriculture Ministry official said the ministry suspected imported animal feed as the cause and was tracing which herds may have eaten the same feed. The ministry is also trying to track cows from the farm in Hokkaido where the suspected 5-year-old Holstein was born, but the animals have been shipped all over Japan and many have already been slaughtered and processed.

Japan had asked the European Commission last year to conduct a risk assessment for the disease, but when the results last spring showed Japan at risk because it had imported animal feed, Japanese officials insisted that the report be dropped.

With daily reports on the number of cows being inspected or traced, and while waiting for the results from Britain, consumers have not abandoned beef. "It's not that I'm not scared, but reports say the meat is okay," said Eiko Ikeda, 50, a housewife buying ground beef and cubes of steak at a suburban grocery store. "For the time being, I trust the beef."

Another shopper, however, looked over the beef but decided to buy chicken. "I don't think there is any concrete logic to say that meat is safe," said Kayoko Ikeda, 36. "When you hear that the cow was not actually destroyed, what can you believe? You've got to protect yourself."


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