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From: TSS (wt-d6-169.wt.net)
Subject: U.S. May Have 2nd Mad-Cow Case WSJ
Date: November 19, 2004 at 9:30 am PST

U.S. May Have 2nd Mad-Cow Case

By SCOTT KILMAN
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
November 19, 2004; Page A3

The Agriculture Department may have uncovered a second case of mad-cow disease, elevating fears that the brain-wasting disease might be spreading in the U.S. cattle herd.

Federal officials said they managed to keep the meat of this suspect animal out of the food supply -- unlike the case of the first infected cow discovered last December. Still, the USDA put such a tight lid on any other information about the animal, which was flagged by a preliminary rapid-screening test, that food-industry officials could only speculate yesterday about how consumers would react if further test results confirm the initial test.

"We're all in limbo," said Chuck Levitt, an analyst at Alaron Trading Corp., a Chicago commodity firm.

The USDA said its laboratory in Ames, Iowa, is conducting further tests on the brain sample of the suspect animal; the results probably won't be announced until next week.

In trading at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, the price of the live-cattle futures contract for December delivery fell 2.7 cents a pound to settle at 84.62 cents a pound (see commodity-trading article). Shares of fast-food chains, such as McDonald's Corp., Wendy's International Inc., and Jack in the Box Inc. slipped on the news. Tyson Foods Inc., the nation's largest meatpacker, also fell.

Technically known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, mad-cow disease can trigger a fatal neurological disease in people who eat products from infected cattle. Although the human form of mad-cow disease is rare, it is so horrific that the discovery of infected cattle instantly triggers import bans on its beef by other countries. The Bush administration still is struggling to get nations such as Japan and South Korea to buy U.S. beef again after last December's discovery.

Most U.S. consumers shrugged off the first case, discovered on a Washington state dairy farm, largely because that Holstein cow was born in Canada and probably caught the disease there before feed regulations were tightened in 1997 by Canadian and U.S. officials. Cattle most likely catch the disease by eating the remains of infected cattle that have been recycled into protein supplements for livestock rations.

Some consumer analysts said a second confirmed case probably wouldn't substantially damp domestic beef demand, in part because shoppers have had nearly a year to get used to the appearance of the disease in the U.S. "My sense is that you're going to need a widespread outbreak for this to have an impact on consumption," said Harry Balzer, a vice president at NPD Group, a Port Washington, N.Y., consumer-marketing research firm.

Indeed, Kroger Co., the nation's largest traditional supermarket chain, said it hadn't received any calls to its main customer hotline from concerned customers as of yesterday afternoon.

Still, another discovery could cause problems for the food industry and agriculture, depending on an infected animal's age and history. If an infected cow was born after August 1997, that would indicate that poor enforcement of the feed rule had exposed another generation of cattle to the disease. Likewise, if any diseased animal is found to have been born in the U.S., that would mean the infection is circulating here and thus harder to keep out of the food supply.

The discovery of the first U.S. mad-cow case prompted the Bush administration to ban meatpackers from slaughtering cattle that display potential symptoms, such as an inability to walk, and to ban the consumption of organs, such as the brain from older cattle, known to harbor the infectious agent.

The government also launched a program in June to screen brain samples from hundreds of thousands of high-risk cattle, forcing the government to use rapid-test kits for the first time. The USDA, which has surveyed about 113,000 cattle during the past five months, posts the results each weekday on its Web site.

The surveillance program twice generated false alarms during its first month. As a result, the USDA made it harder for lab workers to label a brain sample as suspicious, increasing the likelihood of a true mad-cow discovery this time around.

A brain sample that generates a suspicious reading on a rapid-test kit is screened twice more using that same technology. If either of those runs raises a flag, the USDA announces it has an "inconclusive" sample and regulators begin tracing the origin of the suspect animal and its companions, and send the suspect sample for further testing.

"The changes reduce the chances that this is a false positive," said Barb Powers, director of the veterinary diagnostic laboratory at Colorado State University, which is participating in the USDA surveillance program.

The rapid-test kit, which gives results in several hours, uses antibodies to detect the abnormal prions that cause holes to form in the brains of infected cattle. The rapid-test kits can produce some false positives -- some scientists say at a rate of about one for every 100,000 tests conducted.

As a result, the USDA considers a positive on a rapid test to be inconclusive until it runs a highly accurate laboratory procedure called immunohistochemistry, which is far more expensive and takes several days to complete.

USDA officials for months have warned that the appearance of one case of mad-cow disease in the U.S. meant other cases likely would be found. Even if a second instance is confirmed, however, the results of the USDA's mass-screening program so far indicate that the problem probably is small, some food-safety scientists say. "I'm comfortable that this is a very rare disease in the U.S.," said William D. Hueston, director of the Center for Animal Health and Food Safety at the University of Minnesota.

Still, a second case could renew efforts by consumer advocates and some in Congress to increase regulation of the food supply. The USDA is developing a system to track diseased animals to the farms they came from within 48 hours, but it will take several years to implement. Also, it is slated to be voluntary, much to the chagrin of some legislators who have proposed making participation mandatory.

In January, the Food and Drug Administration announced it would tighten restrictions on cattle feed, the vehicle of mad-cow transmission in the United Kingdom's outbreak in the 1990s. In July, the FDA said it needed more information and would wait to issue the rule, which would ban mammalian blood, poultry litter and restaurant waste from cattle feed.

Caroline Smith DeWaal, food-safety director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said a second confirmed case would increase "the urgency for getting these protections in place."

--Janet Adamy, Steven Gray and Sarah Lueck contributed to this article.

Write to Scott Kilman at scott.kilman@wsj.com
http://online.wsj.com/


TSS



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