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Wednesday, December 24, 2003 - Page updated at 09:41 A.M.
Mad-cow disease hits state; feds say beef 'absolutely safe'
By Sandi Doughton
A Holstein dairy cow from a small farm near Yakima is the nation's first probable case of "mad-cow" disease, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman said yesterday, hastening to reassure Americans that the risk of contracting the brain-wasting disease is minuscule.
"Despite the finding, we remain confident in the safety of our food supply," Veneman said. "I do not hesitate to recommend to anyone that beef is absolutely safe to eat."
But the news, which hit as many Americans were shopping for their Christmas roasts, could prove devastating to the nation's $175-billion beef industry.
Stocks in meat-packing companies and restaurant chains fell quickly today as investors reacted to the first reported case of mad cow disease in the United States.
In the first hour of trading on Wall Street, the market signaled concern over decisions by several countries to cut off U.S. beef imports, and the potential that the reports might turn consumers away from buying hamburgers and steak.
Early losers included several companies with business heavily reliant on beef consumption. McDonald's Corp. fell more than 6 percent to $23.81. Wendy's International was off 5 percent at $37.61. Tyson Foods, which relies on beef for nearly half of its business, saw its shares drop nearly 7 percent to $13.06.
Cattle futures were expected to fall sharply when trading opened later in the day.
The sickly animal was slaughtered Dec. 9, and the meat was processed at three plants in Centralia and in Portland and Clackamas, Ore. State and federal officials have quarantined the farm near the town of Mabton and are scrambling to trace the beef, which was most likely ground into hamburger.
It's possible the meat has already been consumed, said Bill Brookreson, Washington's deputy agriculture chief.
"We believe the likelihood of it moving in the food chain is very, very, very small," Brookreson said, adding that he intended to take his grandchildren for a burger later.
Reuters News Agency reported that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will recall any of the beef that remains on the market as soon as it's located a process that will require records inspections at all of the facilities where the meat was handled.
State and federal officials refused to speculate about the economic impact of the discovery, though Japan, South Korea, Australia, Thailand, Taiwan, Malaysia and Singapore quickly announced they will halt beef imports from the United States. The news sent beef-related stocks reeling in Japan, where markets were still open when the news broke. Shares of McDonald's Japanese operations fell 2.7 percent.
American cattle industry leaders attempted to soften the blow, asserting that beef on the market now is free of mad-cow contamination and that there's no evidence of widespread infection in cows.
"While this one case is unfortunate, systems have been built over the past 15 years to prevent the disease from spreading and affecting either animal health or public health," said Terry Stokes, chief executive officer of the National Cattleman's Beef Association.
Other industry insiders conceded that there will be international fallout, and that beef prices are likely to fall.
Yakima County extension agent Frank Hendrix, who works with local ranchers and farmers, predicted a "huge" impact on the county's multimillion-dollar beef industry, as consumers turn away from beef.
When the disease was discovered in a single cow in Alberta in May, the U.S. and 28 other nations banned imports of Canadian beef, pushing that nation's cattle industry to the brink of collapse.
Officially known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, mad-cow disease first surfaced in England in 1986. It destroys the brain, causing the animal to stumble and behave erratically, hence the common name for the condition.
As the disease spread through Europe and Asia, millions of animals were destroyed and beef imports from affected nations were banned around the world.
Humans can pick up the disease by eating the brain or central-nervous-system tissue from infected animals. In England, experts suspect the disease spread to humans through butchering techniques that contaminated hamburger and other cuts of meat with fragments of spinal cord.
About 140 people have died of the condition worldwide, most of them in England. Only one human case has been reported in the United States, a British woman living in Florida who was apparently infected in England. The disease robs victims of their ability to think, leaving them bed-ridden and helpless.
There's no way of knowing yet how the Mabton cow contracted the disease, Veneman said. Experts believe mad-cow spread widely in England because farmers there commonly gave their cattle feed made from the carcasses of sheep infected with a similar disease.
In 1997, the FDA banned the use of meat and bone meal in cattle feed. But the cattle industry tacitly acknowledges that the ban is not altogether effective, and some cattle associations remind their members to not buy from companies that don't comply with the rules.
The investigation will focus on the animal's feed supply, since the disease doesn't appear to spread from cow to cow, Brookreson said. The disease can take years to appear, so it's possible the infected cow might have eaten contaminated food before the 1997 ban, he added.
Investigators will also attempt to find out what happened to the infected brain and spinal cord, which were sent to a rendering plant after the test samples were taken.
Rendering plants cook down otherwise unusable animal parts and carcasses, producing a product called tallow, which is used in soap and some kinds of animal feed. There's virtually no chance anything would make its way into the human food chain, said a USDA spokeswoman.
Tracing the source of the infection could likely prove impossible, said John Stauber, co-author of "Mad Cow USA," a book critical of the beef industry and U.S. procedures for tracking animals and feed.
"You have to ask, 'What has this cow been eating all of its life, what other cows have been eating the same thing, and where are they now?' " he said. Feeds move freely across the U.S.-Canada border, and until the Canadian case was confirmed, cows were also shipped between the two nations, he said.
Researchers at Harvard University who conducted a major study on the risk that mad-cow disease would spread in this country said yesterday that the danger to humans and animals from one cow is extremely low.
"It's not zero," said David Ropeik, director of risk communication at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis. "But it's as close to zero as you can get."
The Harvard study, funded by the USDA in 1998, concluded that even if dozens of sick animals were discovered in this country, the chance of the disease turning into an epidemic would be very low.
Eventually, Harvard's Ropeik said, the disease, which is not very contagious, "chokes itself off and dies off."
Critics say the USDA should not allow any meat from "downer" cows into the food chain, because they are at the highest risk for mad-cow infection. Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y., sponsored an unsuccessful bill in the House this year that would have banned processing of any downer animals. A similar bill passed the Senate.
Only about 10 percent of downer animals are tested for mad-cow infection, said Wayne Pacelle of the Humane Society of the United States, an animal-welfare organization.
"We have been warning for years that downed animals represent the greatest threat of spreading mad-cow disease in the United States," he said.
USDA spokeswoman Julie Quick said some downer animals are unable to walk because they have broken legs and other injuries, but their meat is still safe to eat.
She also said the USDA does not require slaughterhouses to hold the meat of animals tested for mad-cow disease until the results come back, because removal of the brain and spinal cord virtually eliminates any risk to people who eat the meat.
But some recent studies show that prions, the infectious agents believed responsible for mad-cow disease, are present in muscle tissue of infected mice, suggesting that muscle meat may not be completely free from risk.
While some Seattle resident were alarmed at the news, others were more sanguine.
At Village Market Thriftway in Mountlake Terrace, meat manager Ron Kuhlman stacked printouts of news reports on the counter for customers to read. He said he was confident none of his beef was contaminated.
Alexandra Schatz, who moved to the U.S. from Europe a year ago, said she stopped eating beef at fast-food restaurants after the disease broke out in England and France.
"I thought that one of the good things about living here was that I could eat as much beef as I wanted to," Schatz said, shopping for tenderloin steak at the West Seattle Thriftway. She said the scare would now stop her from eating burger meat, which is more susceptible to contamination because it often contains meat from several sources.
Renee Estrada has no such qualms.
"I don't think eating meat's safe sometimes, but we're really, really hungry and we hope nothing happens to us," she said, munching on a Deluxe burger at the Dick's Drive-In on Capitol Hill. "Wanna bite?"
Andy Werkhoven, who operates a Snohomish County dairy farm with about 650 head of cattle, said he's more afraid for his bottom line than his cattle. "The fear of this affecting my cattle is zero," he said. But the public scare is likely to cause beef prices to plummet.
"I think this is really a rare circumstance like in Canada where only one case was found," added Dale Reiner, a beef-cattle farmer who is also vice president of the Snohomish County Cattlemen. "I'm confident the USDA will do a thorough job investigating this, and that will be a good thing in the end."
Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Seattle Times staff reporters Susan Kelleher, Judith Blake, Jonathan Martin, Sanjay Bhatt, Drew DeSilver, David Heath, Jake Batsell, Steve Miletich, J. Martin McOmber, Emily Heffter, Christopher Schwarzen, Michael Ko, J. Patrick Coolican and Craig Welch contributed to this report.
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