Consumer and cattle-industry groups joined the government in cautioning against public alarm as federal scientists investigate a possible new case of mad cow disease (search).

The Agriculture Department (search) said Thursday that additional checks were needed after an initial screening proved inconclusive for the disease in a single animal. Results will be known in four days to seven days.

The announcement raised fears that the United States might have its second case of the fatal brain-wasting disease and rattled the cattle industies and hamburger restaurant chains.

Mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, attacks an animal's nervous system. People who eat food contaminated with BSE can contract a rare disease that is nearly always fatal — variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (search).

"The inconclusive result does not mean we have found another case of BSE in this country," said Andrea Morgan, associate deputy administrator of the department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

She said the department "remains confident in the safety of the U.S. beef supply."

The "inconclusive result" was the same term the agency used in June when two potential cases turned out to be false alarms.

Industry and consumer groups emphasized that the test results were preliminary and that no part of the animal in question had entered the food or feed chain.

Jan Lyons, a Kansas cattle producer who is the president of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, said the test result "is simply one step in the process," and that a tissue sample was being tested at a national agricultural laboratory in Ames, Iowa.

"We can't assume at this point that this `inconclusive' represents a positive case," Lyons said.

The Consumer Federation of America suggested that the inconclusive label was misleading and that the government should have reported the findings as a "preliminary positive test."

Still, federation official Carol Tucker said, the announcement should not alarm consumers.

In the only confirmed U.S. case, a Canadian-born Holstein was found to have been infected in Washington state last December. More than 40 countries cut off imports of U.S. beef and more than 700 additional cattle in Washington state, Oregon and Idaho were killed as a precaution.

Ranches and businesses dependent on beef are still feeling financial effects from that episode. Thursday's announcement sent cattle prices tumbling. Shares of McDonald's, Wendy's, and other restaurant chains that feature hamburgers slumped, as did those of U.S. meat producers such as Tyson Foods, Inc.

The government gave no information about the location or origin of the slaughtered animal and the announcement led to a flurry of assertions by state agriculture officials that the animal did not come from their states.

The department said in a statement that information about the animal and origin would be released only if the tests come back positive. "These tests cast a very wide net and many end up negative during further testing," the statement said.

The agency says it has performed rapid screening tests on over 113,000 cattle since an enhanced surveillance program began June 1 on cattle considered at high risk for BSE.

Alisa Harrison, a department spokeswoman, said the animal in question was one of these high-risk animals. This group includes animals that died on the farm, have trouble walking or showed signs of nerve damage.

The announcement comes less than a month after U.S. negotiators reached tentative agreements with both Japan and Taiwan to resume U.S. beef and beef product shipments.

Morgan told reporters that she did not anticipate the announcement would undermine those negotiations because of safeguards already in place and "measures that we have already taken to date."

Exports represent about $3.8 billion of America's $40 billion a year beef industry.