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British lab confirms first US case of mad cow disease
( 2003-12-26 10:34) (Agencies)

A British veterinary laboratory confirmed that the United States has its first case of mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), the US Department of Agriculture said.

Brain specimens from the suspect animal, from a meat packing firm in the northwestern state of Washington, tested positive for BSE at a USDA lab in Iowa.

But the USDA sent specimens to a veterinary lab in Britain for confirmation, since Britain has had far more experience with the disease.

"The test samples were received at the laboratory in Weybridge, England, early Christmas morning," the USDA said in a statement.

"The UK veterinary pathologists concur with our interpretation of the December 22 positive test conducted by USDA pathologists at the National Veterinary Services Laboratory in Ames, Iowa," it said.

The statement said USDA chief veterinarian Ron DeHaven "considers this concurrence to be confirmatory of our finding of a positive BSE case."

"The Weybridge lab will conduct a series of additional confirmatory tests," it said, "and we anticipate they will be consistent with the earlier findings."

At least 23 countries, including top importers Mexico and Japan, have now barred US beef imports, a massive blow to the multi-billion-dollar industry that directly employs one million people.

Domestic cattle prices and fast food industry shares have taken a beating in the wake of the scare, and activists launched appeals for tougher food safety standards.

The USDA scheduled a press briefing for 11:00 am (1600GMT) Friday to elaborate on the test results.

Government officials promised Americans their holiday beef was safe, saying the mad cow case unearthed in Washington state posed a negligible health threat.

As of midday Thursday Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, Colombia, Costa Rica, China's Hong Kong and Taiwan, Japan, Jordan, Malaysia, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Russia, Singapore, South Africa, South Korea, Thailand, Trinidad and Tobago, Turkey, and the UAE had all halted US beef imports.

US Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman said authorities were doing all they could to protect consumers and that as the spinal cord and brain of the infected cow had not entered the food chain, the impact of the case should be isolated.

The US beef industry, hoping to avoid the fate of its European counterpart which was savaged by the disease, mobilised to stop further potential cases entering the food chain.

Meat processing firm Vern's Moses Lake Meats, of Moses Lake, Washington state, has recalled about 20 beef carcasses that may have been exposed to raw tissue containing BSE.

And the farm where the four-and-a-half-year old infected cow was kept before slaughter put its remaining 4,000 head of cattle in quarantine.

Activist groups called on Washington to impose tougher standards to ensure the safety of the food supply. Michael Hansen, with the advocacy group Consumers Union, said the United States should adopt the same stringent testing as Europe and Japan.

Although 37 million cows were slaughtered here last year, only 20,000 were tested for mad cow disease, fewer than France tests each month. "For us to recover our export market, they are going to have to do more extensive testing," Hansen said.

Some lawmakers plan to introduce legislation to raise standards to detect mad cow disease. "When we sit down at the dinner table, we should know that what we are eating is as safe as we can make it," Senator Dick Durbin said.

The Consumer Federation of America, lamenting a move by the Bush administration earlier this year blocking an amendment to the agriculture spending bill, said the USDA had taken appropriate but inadequate action.

"USDA must act immediately to further protect the public," it said.

The CFA also wants to see a mandatory traceback system for all bovines set up along with legislation that would provide for mandatory recall of food products.

The only previous outbreak of mad cow disease in North America was a single case at a farm in Alberta, Canada, in May.

Mad cow disease has been linked to a form of the fatal brain-wasting Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease that affects humans.

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