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The nation probably has its first known case of mad cow disease, federal officials said Tuesday.
Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman announced that a suspected case of the disease was found in a Holstein cow slaughtered earlier this month in Washington state.
The cow was not headed for the nation's food supply. Veneman said the risk to the public from eating beef is "extremely low."
"I personally do not hesitate to recommend to any that beef is absolutely safe to eat," Veneman said at a press conference in Washington, D.C.
But the discovery is sure to have an impact on the nation's cattle industry.
The discovery of mad cow disease in a cow in Alberta, Canada, earlier this year prompted U.S. officials to ban imports of Canadian livestock and meat products. The ban, which remains in place, has hurt Canadian cattlemen.
Finding the first case of the disease in the United States was certain to concern the U.S. beef industry, including cattlemen and meatpacking companies, and could have some impact on rural towns.
Nebraska is the nation's leading beef processing state and a leading state in raising cattle for slaughter.
Stocks of major U.S. restaurant chains fell in after-hours trading after the USDA announcement.
Veneman said testing on one sick or injured cow indicated the probable presence of the brain-damaging disease.
Mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, eats holes in the brains of cattle. Mad cow disease in cattle in Great Britain in 1986 spread throughout Europe and led to destruction of huge herds of cattle. Demand for beef plummeted.
Mad cow disease can lead to a fatal condition in humans called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.
Veneman cautioned that the U.S. case was not terrorist-related and had nothing to do with the heightened terrorist threat level.
The case involves in a cow on a farm in Mabton, Wash., 40 miles southeast of Yakima. The farm has been quarantined, and the Department of Agriculture is investigating both the cow's origin and the destination of beef from it.
Beef from the cow was sent to two beef processing plants, also in Washington state, she said. The government is working with the plants to determine what happened to the beef once it entered the facilities, Veneman said.
The case arose when a sample from the diseased cow was taken Dec. 9. It tested presumptively positive at a lab in Ames, Iowa. A sample has been flown to Britain for possible confirmation, which Veneman said could come within five days.
"Even though the risk to human health is minimal, we will take all appropriate actions out of an abundance of caution," she said.
Since 1990, the Agriculture Department has had precautions in place to check for mad cow disease, she said. This year, 20,526 head of cattle have been tested, triple the number in 2002, Veneman said.
Elsa Murano, the Agriculture Department's undersecretary for food safety, said the areas of the cow where the mad cow infection resides are the brain and spinal column. Those parts of the suspected cow were sent to a rendering plant and thus never entered the food chain.
Federal regulations ban the feeding of rendered beef byproducts to cattle. The byproducts are permitted in pet food and feed for other livestock.
Veneman said U.S. trading partners had been notified.
The experience of Canada, which identified a single case of mad cow disease last spring, will help guide the Agriculture Department in its investigation, she said. She noted that demand for beef in Canada did not drop after the incident.
However, Canadian beef producers suffered financially from the border closing.
And she reiterated her belief that the risk to the American public is low now, saying she plans to serve beef for her Christmas dinner.
"This finding, while unfortunate, does not pose any kind of significant risk to the human food chain," she said.
Mad cow information
The USDA will frequently update its Web site, and concerned consumers can call a hot line at (866) USDA-COM.
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