Japan finds 2nd mad cow case; domestic cattle involved, but U.S. Exporters fear loss

November 22, 2001 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette by Michael Zielenziger
U.S. beef exporters feared devastating losses yesterday after Japan announced the discovery of a second case of "mad cow" disease among domestic cattle, a month after giving the industry a clean bill of health.

Health ministry officials confirmed that a 5-year-old Holstein dairy cow, raised on a farm near Sarufutsu, on the tip of Japan's northernmost island of Hokkaido, tested positive for bovine spongiform encephalopathy, a fatal brain-wasting disease. Scientists believe that eating beef infected with BSE can cause a new variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, an incurable, deadly brain affliction. The discovery is likely to depress beef sales in Japan, which have plummeted nearly 70 percent since a cow tested positive for the brain-wasting disease Sept. 10, the first time it had been detected in Asia.

No Japanese have become ill by eating meat tainted by the disease, but they are known for their finicky demands for the highest quality products and their almost phobic fear of disease, and that concern is expected to affect sales of all beef regardless of origin.

"Our sales are down 30 to 40 percent already, and the longer this crisis goes on the more severe the damage will be," said Sam Yamada, director of the U.S. Meat Federation in Tokyo. While American beef has been free of mad-cow disease, Yamada said Japanese consumers seem to be unable or unwilling to distinguish between imported and domestic beef.

"Despite the recent evidence, Japanese consumers still believe that domestic beef is safer than imported. With this second outbreak, they may feel that all beef is unsafe," he added.

U.S. beef exporters sold some $1.5 billion of beef last year to Japan.

"I hope consumers will feel confident about the safety of beef on the market, because the system to check the disease is working," said Shimpei Ozaki, head of the Health Ministry's food safety department.

The news is "disappointing," said Health Minister Chikara Sakaguchi. "It is good that we have been conducting strict tests with the determination that we must not have one single [infected] cow reach the dinner tables of citizens."

The way the first diagnosis of mad cow disease was handled jolted public confidence. Though a researcher confirmed the disease in the animal on Aug. 24, it took until Sept. 10 for the ministry to confirm its finding. Then the government issued incorrect information, which further eroded confidence.

At first, agriculture officials announced with grim finality that the infected cow had been incinerated. Four days later, red-faced bureaucrats said the carcass had, in fact, been turned into bonemeal and sold to a feed manufacturer, which meant the infected remains may have been fed to more cattle. It's precisely for this reason that European nations banned use of the meat and bonemeal feed after British herds became infected with the disease. More than 80 people in Great Britain have died of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

A month ago, Japan's agriculture and health ministers posed before TV cameras munching grilled sirloin and proclaiming that Japanese beef was safe. Yet officials still have not determined how the Holstein cow in Chiba prefecture, east of Tokyo, contracted the first Japanese case of mad cow disease.

Some researchers think the disease is spread when cattle eat animal feed composed of meat and bonemeal from other diseased animals. But officials in Hokkaido insist that the cow that contracted BSE in their prefecture was fed only local grasses and conventional feed made from grain.

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