Despite Case, U.S. Could Claim Mad Cow-Free Status
- Despite Case, U.S. Could Claim Mad Cow-Free Status
Sat Jan 3, 2003
By Charles Abbott
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Despite discovery of its first case of mad cow
disease, the United States could still claim to be free of the
ailment, experts say -- an approach that a consumer group says would
be a mistake.
The designation would hinge on whether the infected cow was imported,
as early evidence suggests.
Scientists are expected to report early next week if the infected
Holstein milk cow in Washington state was born in Canada, based on
two separate DNA tests.
Two dozen nations stopped importing U.S. beef following the
discovery. To reassure international and domestic consumers, the Bush
administration announced new safeguards, including a ban on
butchering sick or injured cattle for human food.
"We have the opportunity to preserve our export market," said Michael
Stumo of the Organization for Competitive Markets, a group that
supports small farmers.
It wants the Bush administration to declare the United States
"provisionally free" of mad cow, also called bovine spongiform
"That's the whole reason for the losses," he said.
Standards set by the World Organization for Animal Health say a
nation can be classified as provisionally free of mad cow when the
disease is found in imported cattle and authorities are diligent in
rooting it out and in maintaining safeguards.
"As you know, we are just one week into the investigation so it is
too early to say what actions we will be taking in regard to OIE
status," an Agriculture Department spokeswoman told Reuters, using
the French abbreviation for the animal health organization.
That approach would jeopardize the administration's credibility,
consumer groups said.
"It would not be a good interpretation from a public health
standpoint" nor one that Americans would believe, said Caroline Smith
DeWaal, food safety director of the Center for Science in the Public
Interest, a consumer group.
BEST NOT TO BLAME CANADA
Canada and the United States have a large cattle trade, DeWaal said,
so blaming Canada would not end the need for U.S. caution. Canada
reported its first native case of mad cow last May 20 in the same
province where the Washington state cow may have been born in April
"Now that two cattle have been discovered who probably ate from the
same feed source, there probably are others. Where those cattle are
today is anybody's guess," said DeWaal.
Both animals may have fallen ill because they ate feed contaminated
with infected remains. U.S. officials are trying to locate 80 head of
cattle that entered the United States with the infected cow.
People who eat infected cattle could be at risk of developing variant
Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (news - web sites), a brain-wasting ailment
that has killed 130 people, most of them in Britain.
At the OIE, Alex Thiermann said discussion of how to classify the
United States was hypothetical until the origin of the infected
Holstein was known.
Thiermann, chairman of OIE's standards-setting committee, said by
telephone from Paris that officials should focus on reducing the risk
of disease because of the large U.S.-Canada cattle trade.
Canada usually ships 1 million head to U.S. buyers each year and is
the fourth largest importer of U.S. beef. It has banned imports of
U.S. animals older than 30 months.
International trade expert Paul Drazek said ranking the United States
as provisionally free of mad cow "is a legitimate question."
"Any other country would be attempting to make the same claim if it
could," Drazek said.
Agriculture Undersecretaries J.B. Penn and Bill Hawks leave for
Mexico City on Monday to update Mexican officials on the mad cow
case. A USDA trade team discussed the beef ban with Japan and South
Korea (news - web sites) early this week.
Japan, Mexico and South Korea are the leading markets for U.S. beef,
accounting for $2.1 billion of exports that total $3.2 billion a
year. All three have stopped imports of U.S. beef.