Mad cow disease may spell the end for cow intestine delicacy in Japan

September 21, 2001 Agence France Presse by Ryan Nakashima
Grilled cow intestines, a favourite delicacy of many Japanese, could disappear from menus nationwide as a result of a review conducted by the health ministry in the light of Asia's first mad cow scare.

Even if a cow tests negative for mad cow disease or bovine spongiform encephelopathy (BSE), its brains, spinal cords and intestines may be tagged for incineration because the risk of transmitting the disease to humans through such organs is much higher than that from beef, a health ministry official said Friday.

Mad cow disease is a brain-wasting illness linked to the fatal variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD) in humans. The disease has killed about 100 people in Britain since the mid-1980s. Tokyo announced on September 10 that brain tissue from a Holstein dairy cow from a farm in Chiba, east of Tokyo, had tested positive for bovine spongiform BSE.

About 65 percent of the nation's roughly 4.5 million head of cattle have since been checked by the agriculture ministry for signs of the disease without being slaughtered in an emergency survey.

"If more cases emerge, there may be cows that slip through the cracks of the inspection system, so we must consider removing those dangerous parts from the food chain," said Satoshi Takaya, chief of the ministry's inspection and safety division in the food sanitation bureau.

While cow's brains are not used as food, Takaya said "there are some" people who eat spinal cord, and many who enjoy chewing on "horumon yaki" -- intestines usually fried on a hotplate, but sometimes grilled on a skewer in Korean barbecue restaurants.

"Horu" means to throw away, and refers to the fact that intestines were not traditionally considered worth eating in Japan.

No conclusion has been reached on whether to ban the organs yet, Takaya said.

Takaya said the main priority now was to conduct the intensive examination of some one million cows aged 30 months or older which was announced Wednesday. The cows will be slaughtered and brain samples tested for BSE starting in late October.

Meanwhile, experts from the agriculture ministry were meeting Friday to discuss strategies for preventing an outbreak of mad cow disease.

A government health official said Thursday Japan would expand its criteria in the tests to pull aside cows that had fevers, abnormal breathing or reduced milk yields, in addition to those that showed neurological or motor disfunction.

Also on Thursday, agriculture minister Tsutomu Takebe expressed regret over Tokyo's rejection of a warning from the European Union (EU) about a possible outbreak of the brain-wasting illness here.

In June, a diplomat from the European Commission's Tokyo delegation said that Tokyo was pressuring Brussels to block publication of an alarming evaluation report on the risk of BSE in Japan.

The still unpublished report by the Scientific Steering Committee, which is in charge of nutritional safety in the European Union, evaluated the risk-level of mad cow disease in Japan as three on a scale of one to four, according to sources close to the committee.

The higher the grade, the greater the chance of the potentially devastating BSE having already contaminated the food chain.

But the farm ministry had reportedly questioned the EU method of evaluation and insisted that Japan was highly safe.

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