Mad Cow case confirmed in central California

Meat did not enter human food chain nor pose any threat to consumers

April 24 (Bloomberg) -- The first U.S. case of mad cow disease in six years has been found in a dairy cow in central California, before it entered the human food chain and posed any threat to consumers, officials said.

The cow was identified as part of routine testing for the brain-wasting disease, known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, John Clifford, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s chief veterinarian, told reporters today at a briefing in Washington.

The animal arrived April 18 at a Baker Commodities Inc. facility in Hanford, California, where dead livestock are held before going to a rendering plant, Dennis Luckey, executive vice president of operations at Los Angeles-based Baker, said in a phone interview.

The carcass “was never presented for slaughter for human consumption, so at no time presented a risk to the food supply or human health,” Clifford said in a statement. Mad cow disease cannot be transmitted through milk from dairy animals, he said. “USDA remains confident in the health of the national herd and the safety of beef and dairy products.”

Cattle futures tumbled the most in 11 months in Chicago, and feeder-cattle prices fell by the exchange limit. The world’s largest beef producer, Brazil’s JBS SA, fell by as much as 5.2 percent before closing 0.3 percent lower in Sao Paulo. Tyson Foods Inc., the second-biggest U.S. beef processor, pared earlier gains to close 1.5 percent higher in New York.

Random Sampling

This is the fourth BSE case found in the U.S. herd, and the first since March 2006. Clifford said the age and the source of the animal in the latest case were being investigated. Luckey said the animal was at least 30 months old and the disease was discovered as part of random testing conducted to meet USDA quotas. He said it’s possible that a diseased animal could be processed without being tested.

Scientists say the disease is spread through feed that contains brain or spinal cord tissue from infected animals. People can get it from eating products containing such tissues, such as head cheese. Since 1997, feed made from mammals has been banned from cattle rations, and high-risk materials such as brains have been kept from the human food supply.

Comes from Protein

Much is unknown about how the disease, which comes from a protein that changes form rather than a virus or bacteria, said Michele Jay-Russell, a veterinarian and researcher at the University of California in Davis, in an interview.

State veterinary diagnostic labs do surveillance to identify any cattle in the U.S. showing neurological symptoms that may indicate mad cow, she said. California officials are holding the carcass at the rendering facility, the USDA said without identifying the plant or its location.

The latest BSE case was “atypical,” Clifford said, meaning that its disease form is very rare and not generally associated with an animal consuming infected feed. Such cases can occur spontaneously in older animals, said Guy Loneragan, an epidemiologist and professor of food safety and public health at Texas Tech University in Lubbock.

Cattle futures for June delivery fell by the exchange limit of 3 cents, or 2.6 percent, to settle at $1.11575 a pound at 1 p.m. on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. That’s the lowest level since July 1 and the biggest percentage drop on a most-active contract since May 23.

Cattle Futures

Feeder cattle futures for August settlement declined by the 3-cent limit, or 1.9 percent, 1 $1.51225 a pound on the CME. That’s the biggest loss since Sept. 22.

Mad cow disease has been most prevalent in the U.K., which has had 184,000 cases since 1987. Last year only 29 cases were reported worldwide, Clifford said. Canada, the biggest U.S. agricultural trading partner, has had 19 occurrences as of February 2011, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“It’s been rare” Jay-Russell said. “We have a fairly robust surveillance system.”

Still, the new case shows a need to boost surveillance, said Michael Hansen, a staff scientist at Consumers Union, a Yonkers, New York advocacy group.

Next page: Taking risks?

‘Russian Roulette’

“The USDA is playing Russian Roulette with public health,” Hansen said, calling for more cattle to be tested than the sampling the agency currently performs.

Senator Max Baucus of Montana, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said he needs to know more before coming to a determination on what ought to be done.

“Where’d this cow come from? What’s its feed?” he asked.

Tom Talbot, chairman of the Washington-based National Cattlemen’s Beef Association’s cattle health committee, said the discovery poses no risk to human health.

“All U.S. beef is safe,” he said.

U.S. beef exports plunged 82 percent to 460.3 million pounds in the year following the discovery of the country’s first mad cow case in December 2003, as dozens of countries closed their borders to exports, government data show. Losses to livestock producers and meat packers including Tyson Foods Inc. and Cargill Inc. ranged from $2.5 billion to $3.1 billion annually from 2004 through 2007, the International Trade Commission has said.

Nations including Japan and China have maintained some restrictions on U.S. beef imports ever since.

“The systems and safeguards in place to protect animal and human health worked as planned to identify this case quickly, and will ensure that it presents no risk to the food supply or to human health,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a statement.

“I am going home and I am having beef for dinner, and that is no lie,” Vilsack said in an interview on CNN.

Bloomberg News

--With assistance from Jeff Plungis, Stephanie Armour and Derek Wallbank in Washington, Jack Kaskey in Houston, Elizabeth Campbell and Shruti Singh in Chicago, Simon Casey in New York, Angela Zimm in Boston and Michael B. Marois in Sacramento. Editors: Daniel Enoch, Jon Morgan

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