WASHINGTON | Tue Apr 24, 2012 8:25pm EDT
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. authorities reported the country’s first case of mad cow disease in six years on Tuesday, and swiftly assured consumers and global importers that there was no danger of meat from the California dairy cow entering the food chain.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the finding posed “no risk to the food supply or to human health”, and experts said they were relieved by the fact that the case was “atypical” — meaning it was a rare occurrence in which a cow contracts the disease spontaneously, rather than through the feed supply.
However, fears of a potential backlash among consumers and big importers of U.S. beef fueled a sell-off in Chicago live cattle futures, with memories still sharp of the first case in 2003 that caused a $3 billion drop in exports. It took until 2011 before those exports fully recovered.
There is no evidence that humans can catch mad cow — or Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE)– from drinking the milk of an infected cow. The risk of transmission generally comes when the brain or spinal tissue is consumed by humans or another animal, which did not occur in this case.
First discovered in Great Britain in 1986, the disease has killed more than 150 people and 184,000 cows globally, mainly in Britain and Europe, but strict controls have tempered its spread. The first U.S. case was found in late 2003 in an animal imported from Canada, followed by two more in 2005 and 2006. Two of those cases were also “atypical”.
“I would say this is an extremely isolated, atypical event,” said Dr. Bruce Akey, professor of veterinary medicine and director of the Animal Health Diagnostic Center at Cornell University, which tests for Mad Cow and Chronic Wasting diseases for New York state and several Northeastern states.
“There is still no evidence at all that BSE is anything but an extremely rare event in the United States, and nothing that poses a threat to the human or animal food chain.”
Many industry officials said they were hopeful that major importers such as Japan, South Korea and China would follow the lead of Mexico, which quickly pledged to maintain imports.
But many were bracing for bad news, dealing a fresh blow to companies like Tyson Foods Inc and Brazil-based JBS that are still smarting from the “pink slime” furor.
“We’re not always dealing with sound science, we’re dealing with political science,” Tom Talbot, a veterinarian who is chairman of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association’s Cattle Health and Well-being Committee.
NOT IN THE FEED
The USDA has begun notifying authorities at the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) as well as U.S. trading partners, said John Clifford, the USDA’s chief veterinary officer.
“The systems and safeguards in place to protect animal and human health worked as planned to identify this case quickly and will ensure that it presents no risk to the food supply or to human health,” Vilsack said in a statement.
The USDA is still tracing the exact life of the infected animal, and the carcass of the cow is under quarantine and would be destroyed. It was not believed to have contracted the disease by eating contaminated feed, the USDA said.
The cow which was found at a rendering plant, which processes diseased or sick animals into mainly non-edible products for use in things like soap or glue.
The carcass of the dairy cow was brought last Wednesday to a collection facility in Hanford, California, run by privately held processor Baker Commodities Inc, company vice president Dennis Luckey said in an interview.
A tissue sample was taken from its brain and sent to the University of California, Davis. The sample came back inconclusive and was then sent to USDA facility in Ames, Iowa, and returned on Tuesday as positive.
“The material is in quarantine now,” Luckey said.
Live cattle futures on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange fell by more than 2.5 percent for their biggest drop in seven months, closing down the daily 3-cent-per-pound limit at 111.575 cents per lb. But prices pared losses in after-hours trading after the USDA said the food chain was safe, with the June contract rising 0.4 percent to 112 cents per lb.
EXPORTS BOOM, TROUBLE AT HOME
The news comes at a time of booming beef exports, with total shipments reaching a record last year thanks to expanding markets in countries like China, Russia and Canada, according to Commerce Department data.
But exports to Japan, Mexico and South Korea, which bought over 80 percent of U.S. beef and veal exports in 2003, have yet to match their earlier peaks, with many of them maintaining certain restrictions that may help temper any fallout.
“This is not a 2003 situation. There will not be any new bans because of these limitations,” said Rich Nelson, director of research at commodities broker and Allendale Inc.
Mexico, which buys more U.S. beef than any other country, said it has no plans to halt imports and that it would maintain the same regimen of inspections for trade across the border.
“The impact should not affect exports. Now, I’m not saying it may or may not, but it should not,” Clifford said of the mad cow case, noting that the United States has been recognized by authorities as having taken steps to control its risks for the disease.
But it’s also been a difficult period in the domestic market, with firms still reeling from fallout over a ground beef filler that critics called “pink slime”, which was pulled off grocery store shelves and forced one producer to idle several factories and another to file for bankruptcy.
Big players in the U.S. beef industry include Tyson Foods Inc and the U.S. operations of Brazil-based JBS. Tyson’s shares closed up 1.5 percent at $17.93 on Tuesday, triple the gain of the wider stock market. JBS shares closed down 0.3 percent in Sao Paolo.
JBS USA said on Tuesday the company was confident U.S. beef exports, which surged to a record high last year, would not be affected by this latest case of mad cow disease.
Beef exports plunged nearly 75 percent in 2004 in the wake of the first U.S. incident in late-2003, with USDA reporting net cancellations of beef sales in five out of the first six weeks following the news. Overall beef exports were 321,967 metric tons (354,908 tons) in 2004, down from 1.27 million metric tons in the previous year.
Sales would not rebound to more than 1 million metric tons until 2010. The value of U.S. beef exports totaled $809 million in 2004, down from $3.86 billion in 2003, according to the U.S. Meat Export Federation.
BSE, or mad cow, is a neurological disease caused by an abnormal form of a protein called a prion and can damage the central nervous system of cattle.
Greater awareness, surveillance and control over animal feed has helped contain the disease; last year 29 cases were diagnosed worldwide, down from under 200 in 2007, the American Meat Institute says.
Reported cases peaked in peaked at 37,316 in 1992, of which 99.9 percent of which were in the United Kingdom, according to the Office of the United States Trade Representative.
Experts insisted that as the dairy cow had not been eaten by other animals, there was no risk of the disease being spread, and estimated the chance of an animal spontaneously contracting the disease at about one in a million.
“There’s always been concern that there could potentially be a spontaneous form of mad cow disease that just arrives and doesn’t get transmitted through feed,” George Gray, director of George Washington University’s Center for Risk Science and Public Health.
“It’s not like classic mad cow disease that’s transmitted by animals being exposed to the infectious parts of other animals.”
(Reporting by Roberta Rampton, Emily Stephenson, Douglas Palmer and Timothy Gardner in Washington; K.T. Arasu, Julie Steenhuysen, Michael Hirtzer, Theopolis Waters, Karl Plume, Christine Stebbins and Sam Nelson in Chicago; Martinne Geller in New York; Lisa Baertlein in Los Angeles; Writing by Matthew Robinson.; Editing by Bob Burgdorfer and Jonathan Leff)