An American beef cow has tested positive for mad cow disease and additional tests will have to be done at a British laboratory to confirm the results, Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said Friday.
The meat of the animal that tested positive did not get into the nation's food or animal feed chain, Johanns said. "There is no risk whatsoever," he told reporters in a hastily organized conference call on Friday night.
If the British lab confirms the positive test result, it would be the nation's second confirmed case of mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy. The first confirmed case was found in December 2003 in Washington state in a dairy cow that had been fed in Canada.
A confirmed case of the disease would be a blow for the Agriculture Department, which has been struggling to reopen the border to live cattle from Canada and win back export markets in Japan and Korea. After the discovery in 2003, 53 countries banned US cattle. Since then, about one-third of exports have resumed. But Japan, which accounted for nearly half of the nation's beef exports before 2003, has not lifted its ban, despite agreeing to do so last fall.
Beef has soared to record prices in US grocery stores, and meatpackers have struggled from the lack of Canadian cattle they normally count on.
The positive test result came one day after Johanns held a roundtable discussion in Minneapolis with beef cattle producers and other beef officials. There, he pressed the message that the American beef supply was safe and that the border closure was wreaking economic havoc on the US$7.5 billion American beef and cattle industry. The industry has lost more than US$4 billion a year since the case of disease was discovered.
After the discovery in Washington, cattle prices in the US fell by about 16 percent, and consumer surveys at the time suggested that domestic beef demand could fall by as much as 15 percent. But prices recovered in early 2004 and American demand for beef has been robust, contributing to record high prices this spring.
The border with Canada has been closed since May 2003, when the disease was discovered in a cow in Alberta. Since then two other confirmed cases have been found in Canada, and more testing procedures have been put in place there.
The Agriculture Department tried to reopen the border in March to animals that were 30 months or younger, but was stopped after a cattlemen's group suing to keep out Canadian imports won an injunction from a federal judge in Montana.
A San Francisco federal appeals court will hold a hearing on the injunction on July 13, and a trial is set for July 27.