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Probing for Mad Cow Disease

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WASHINGTON - U.S. agriculture officials said yesterday they have quarantined the offspring of the slaughtered Holstein cow that tested positive for mad-cow disease amid an intensifying search for the stricken cow's origins.

The government was trying to reassure the public about the safety of the U.S. food supply even as it confronted a wide ban on imports of U.S. beef. The recall of more than 10,000 pounds of meat from the cow and others slaughtered Dec. 9 at the same Washington company continued.

The quarantine, which now includes herds at two Washington farms, was imposed even though officials said transmission of the disease from mother to calf is considered unlikely.

One calf is at the same dairy near Mabton, Wash., that was the final home of the diseased Holstein cow, said Dr. Ronald DeHaven, the Agriculture Department's chief veterinarian. The other calf is at a bull-calf feeding operation in Sunnyside, Wash., DeHaven said.

A third calf died shortly after birth in 2001, he said.

"The reason for concern with these calves is that even though it is an unlikely means of spreading the disease, there is the potential that the infected cow could pass the disease onto its calves," he said. No decision has been made on destroying the herds, he said.

The emphasis of the widening investigation is on finding the birth herd of the cow, since it likely was infected several years ago from eating contaminated feed, DeHaven said. Scientists say the incubation period for the disease in cattle is four or five years.

He said tracing the source of the infected cow could take days or weeks and extend to other states and even Canada, where officials located the birth herd of a cow with the brain-wasting disease earlier this year.

"If we're lucky, we could know something in a matter of a day or two," DeHaven said. However, he added that it is possible officials may never definitively identify the herd or the source of contaminated feed.

As part of their search, authorities want to know where the animals were transported. They have narrowed their search to two locations in Washington state where the cow could have been purchased: a livestock market and a farm where weaned calves live until they are old enough to produce milk.

The cow had lived since 2001 at the Sunny Dene Ranch in Mabton, a town 40 miles south of Yakima, according to government sources speaking on condition of anonymity.

Confirmation of the first case of mad-cow disease in the United States came Thursday from the Veterinary Laboratories Agency in Weybridge, England. British researchers agreed with the reading of U.S. tests on the stricken cow that showed it had the brain-wasting disease.

Mad-cow disease, officially known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, is caused by a misshapen protein - a prion - that eats holes in a cow's brain. A total of 153 people worldwide have been reported to have contracted the human form of the illness, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Government officials insisted there was no threat to the food supply because the cow's brain, the spinal cord and the lower part of the small intestine - where scientists say the disease is found - were removed before it was sent on for processing.

Humans can contract a fatal variant of mad-cow disease by eating infected beef products, but experts say muscle cuts of beef - including steaks and roasts - are safe.

Still, many countries banned American beef products after Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman first announced a probable case of mad-cow disease on Tuesday.


WASHINGTON - President Bush, who admits he has a weakness for cheeseburgers, isn't going to let one domestic case of mad-cow disease scare him away from beef.

"He's continued to eat beef," White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters yesterday on Air Force One.

Asked if the president is committed to keep eating beef, McClellan said, "That's right. That's right. He is."

"He has eaten beef in the last couple days," McClellan said, adding that Bush has also been getting regular Department of Agriculture updates on the mad-cow case in Washington state.

By Brian Blomquist

Copyright 2003 NYP Holdings, Inc. All rights reserved.

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