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Wednesday, December 24, 2003 - Page updated at 12:45 A.M.

Mad cow disease suspected in Washington state

By Sandi Doughton
Seattle Times staff reporter

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The United States' first probable case of mad cow disease was detected in a cow from a farm in Mabton, near Yakima, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman said today.

Veneman said the nation's food supply remains safe, and that there is little risk to the public.

She also said the incident is not an act of terrorism.

The animal, a Holstein, was slaughtered in Washington this month. At least some of its meat was shipped to two processing plants in the state, Veneman said.

The farm has been quarantined, and inspectors are working to track down any meat from the infected animal.

"Even though the risk to human health is minimal, we will take all appropriate actions out of an abundance of caution," Veneman said.

Veneman said the animal was tested as part of routine, national surveillance program for mad cow infection. Two tests conducted at the USDA's national lab in Iowa were positive for mad cow disease. A U.S. military plane is flying additional samples to England for confirmatory tests.

Mad cow disease, known also as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, is a disease that eats holes in the brains of cattle. It sprang up in Britain in 1986 and spread through countries in Europe and Asia, prompting massive destruction of herds and decimating the European beef industry.

Mad cow disease has never been found in the United States before this incident despite intensive testing for it.

However, there was a case of mad cow disease in Canada last May that officials described as a single, isolated incident.

Veneman said the Agriculture Department has had safeguards in place since 1990 to check for mad cow disease and that 20,526 cows had been tested in 2003 in the United States.

"This is a clear indication that our surveillance and detection program is working," Veneman said.

She said U.S. beef remains "absolutely safe to eat," adding that she plans to serve it at her Christmas dinner Thursday.

The USDA will frequently update its Web site at www.usda.gov, and concerned consumer can call a hot line at 1-866-USDA-COM.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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