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Food Supply Safe Despite Mad Cow, Gov't Says

Government authorities reassured Americans Wednesday that the U.S. food supply is not in danger despite the discovery of one cow in Washington state infected with the brain-wasting mad cow disease (search).

"We're going to take this recall action in an abundance of caution, but we do not believe that there is a risk to human health in this particular situation," Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman (search) told Fox News on Wednesday.

Vern's Moses Lake Meat Co. in Moses Lake, Wash., has voluntarily recalled 10,410 pounds of meat gathered from 20 cows slaughtered there on Dec. 9, including the ill cow. Its 4,000 cattle are also under quarantine. The designation as a Class II recall (search) means that an extremely low likelihood exists that meat sent out for processing contained the infectious agent that causes mad cow disease.

Federal food inspectors have also been sent to four locations that received the meat on Dec. 11. Officials are still trying to track the meat down the line from the processing plant to learn whether it had been sold or consumed.

Veneman said the discovery is a credit to rigorous inspection standards.

"[The ill cow] was discovered at the slaughterhouse. It came in and was tested and the results just came back yesterday and tested positive for this disease. And so we immediately put our action plan into place — begin to trace the cow back to the farm and began to trace the product forward — so that we've got investigations going on both parts of the food chain, backwards and forwards, to get all of the information we can as quickly as possible," Veneman said.

"For this kind of test, this was discovered quite quickly," she said.

First impacting Britain in 1986, bovine spongiform encephalopathy, the scientific name for mad cow disease, is always fatal in cows. Humans who eat animal neural tissue infected by the disease can get a related illness, new-variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (search). This sickness also attacks the central nervous system and is incurable.

It is believed that cows contract BSE when they eat feed containing spinal or brain tissue of another animal infected with BSE. Farmers had used the parts for feed because they are high in protein, but the USDA banned using brain or spinal tissue for feed in 1997. On Tuesday, the USDA announced that, as a precaution, it will work with the Food and Drug Administration (search) to conduct animal feed investigations.

The brain and spinal tissue portions of a cow also never reach the dining table, say officials, because USDA standard operating procedure is to remove the parts of the central nervous system from the animal before sending the rest of the carcass to a meat processing plant.

"The muscle cuts are where there is virtually no risk of BSE. The [neural] material, the brain, spinal cord, distal ileum, which is where the BSE agent resides, those materials did not enter the food supply," Dr. Elsa Murano, Department of Agriculture Under Secretary for Food Safety, told reporters on Tuesday.

"We have been taking steps since 1990 to protect our beef supplies from this disease," Veneman added. "We have a whole series of actions that have been taken to reduce substantially the risk to public health from this disease if it ever were found."

So far in 2003, the USDA has tested 20,526 cattle for BSE, a three-fold increase from the number tested in 2002.  The U.S. industry has 96.7 million cattle.

J. Patrick Boyle, president of the American Meat Institute (search), downplayed the significance of the discovery.

"We have one of the most aggressive live surveillance of animals in the world. We are testing more than 20,000 animals a year. If you look long enough and hard enough you will eventually find a needle in a haystack," Boyle said.

Britain's first confrontation with the disease decimated that country's cattle industry — 183,000 cases of mad cow disease were found in the 10.6 million cattle there. The outbreak ultimately led to the deaths of more than 150 people.

In May this year, a cow infected with BSE was discovered in Alberta, Canada, significantly disrupting that country's beef market. Tuesday's discovery is the first known case of the disease in the United States. In response, eight countries — Russia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Taiwan, Singapore, Mexico and Chile — have temporarily banned U.S. beef imports.

Veneman reminded consumers that BSE is not the same as the highly contagious foot and mouth disease that struck Britain several years ago. She also said U.S. trading partners are still in the process of deciding what should be the typical protocol when a single case of mad cow disease is discovered.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (search), D-S.D., said Veneman and other U.S. officials should consult with trading partners "to regain early access to worldwide markets.

"The secretary of agriculture should continue to handle this isolated, presumptive-positive case in a thoughtful, professional and science-based manner. All steps must be taken to protect the quality and consumer confidence in U.S. beef," Daschle said, adding that Veneman should also keep members of Congress, producers and consumers fully informed of the investigation's progress.

The infected cow was included in the group slaughtered on Dec. 9 after she became paralyzed, which authorities said they thought was a result of calving. However, as a precaution, whenever a cow becomes a "downer" cow, or unable to walk, the USDA tests the animal at the department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (search).

The samples were sent to USDA’s National Veterinary Services Laboratory in Ames, Iowa. Both a visual examination of brain tissue via a microscope and a staining test to detect for disease-causing proteins called prions came back positive.

After retesting the samples to verify the results, USDA officials flew the samples on a military plane to the central veterinary laboratory in Weybridge, England. Tests came back Thursday confirming that the cow was indeed mad.