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Mad cow disease found in the US

December 24, 2003 Financial Times (London,England) by Neil Buckley, 
Joshua Chaffin and Guy Dinmore

US authorities were scrambling last night to contain the potentially devastating fallout from the first case of mad cow disease discovered in the country.

Ann Veneman, agriculture secretary, said a single Holstein cow from a farm in Washington state tested "presumptive positive" after it went to slaughter as a "downer", an animal too sick to walk. Results are awaited from a sample sent by a US military aircraft for further testing in the UK.

Authorities were seeking last night to track meat from the animal, believed to have been sent to atotal of three processing facilities.

Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) has never been found in the US before, but the deadly disease, which scientists believe can be transmitted in a mutated form to adults, devastated the UK beef industry in the 1990s.

The discovery of a single case in Canada in May led to an almost total ban on Canadian beef exports for several months and has so far cost the country about Dollars 2bn.

The UK government ann-ounced in March 1996 that it had found a probable link between mad cow disease in cattle and a new variant of a fatal brain condition, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, in humans.

More than 130 people are known to have died of the variant in the UK. Cows are believed to contract the disease from contaminated mammalian meat and bone meal.

At a hastily convened press conference, Ms Veneman sought to assure American consumers of their safety. She said the discovery had nothing to do with terrorism or the raising on Sunday of the nationwide security alert.

"We see no need for Americans to alter holiday plans or eating habits," she said, announcing that she planned to serve beef for Christmas dinner.

"Even though the risk to human health is minimal, based on evidence, we will take all appropriate actions out of an abundance of caution,'' she said. The farm where the animal came from has been quarantined.

The US was notifying its trade partners, Ms Veneman said. She declined to comment on what might happen to US beef exports which exceeded Dollars 3.7bn last year, making the US the second-largest beef exporter in the world after Australia.

Chandler Keys of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association acknowledged that there was likely to be "disruption" to US beef exports. The association would today meet diplomats from Japan, South Korea and other important customers to try to reassure them.

Shares of McDonald's fell more than 4 per cent in after-market trading yesterday. The world's largest restaurant company is in the middle of a turnround programme. McDonald's sales were hit hard by the mad cow scares in Europe in the late 1990s, and more recently in Japan.

Corn and soy complex futures at the Chicago Board of Trade were expected to open sharply lower today, analysts said.

Officials said none of the neurological tissue from the animal, from which the infection is transmitted, was sent to the processing facilities and therefore did not enter the food chain.

Consumer demand for beef has risen this year in the US with the popularity of high-protein, low-carbohydrate diets such as the Atkins diet. US cattle prices were running at their highest levels in 30 years, boosted in part by the ban on Canadian imports which were eased in September.

The Washington case did not appear to be related to the Canadian case because the animals were of different breeds, officials said.


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