The US scrambled yesterday to contain the fallout from the discovery of mad cow disease in California as the top beef exporter insisted the outbreak posed no threat to consumers.
The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) on Tuesday reported the country’s fourth-ever case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), but stressed the outbreak was contained and no contaminated meat had entered the food chain.
The infected dairy cow from central California, uncovered on Monday, “at no time presented a risk to the food supply or human health,” officials insisted.
BSE cannot be transmitted through milk.
“USDA remains confident in the health of the national herd and the safety of beef and dairy products. As the epidemiological investigation progresses, USDA will continue to communicate findings in a timely and transparent manner,” the USDA said.
Samples from the infected animal were sent to a laboratory in Ames, Iowa, where they proved positive for a rare form of the disease. The results are now being shared with labs in Britain and Canada.
The admission of even a limited outbreak is highly sensitive.
Previous cases of mad cow in the US, Canada, Israel, Europe and Japan have caused disruptions to the global food trade worth billions of dollars.
A stream of sanctions and restrictions were introduced and in some cases and entire herds of cattle had to be slaughtered, destroying farmers’ livelihoods.
Wary US beef producers were keen to prevent a panic.
“The most important message is that US beef is safe,” said Philip Seng of the US Meat Export Federation.
According to the organization, beef exports are worth more than US$353 million to the US each month, with Mexico, Canada, South Korea and Japan among the main export markets.
Yesterday, two major South Korean retailers suspended sales of US beef, saying they would wait to see what action the government takes.
Seoul would take “appropriate” steps after checking details, the South Korean Ministry for Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries said, adding the latest case was not directly connected to beef that can be imported by South Korea.
“If necessary, we can strengthen quarantine and inspections or ban imports,” a ministry official said on condition of anonymity.
South Korea barred US beef in late 2003 following an earlier case of mad cow disease, only agreeing to resume most beef imports in 2008.
The US has an estimated 90.8 million head of cattle, forming a large chunk of the economy in states like Texas, Nebraska, Kansas and California.
Around 40,000 US cattle are tested by the USDA each year.
On the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, the price of cattle futures fell on rumors of the news.