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Man in Japan Dies of Mad Cow Disease, Europe Confirms Case in Goat Canadian and U.S. officials collaborate to assess impact and move toward reopening borders
by Mark A. DeSorbo
It killed a man in Japan, got its proverbial goat in France and now has health and agricultural officials worldwide scrambling for answers. The human case of the brain-wasting disease and the discovery of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) under natural conditions in animals other than cows are both firsts, and health and agricultural officials in both Europe and Japan are continually seeking to reassure the public. Meanwhile, BSE has sent shockwaves through commerce in Canada and the United States. Canada is already reeling from three confirmed cases of mad cow, two of which were discovered in a 9-day period in mid-January. Compounding the dilemma are higher dairy costs in Canada to offset the BSE fallout and rising production cost and a Montana-based cattlemen's association effort to stop the USDA from allowing livestock and beef imports from Canada into the United States. That ban forced a few U.S. meatpackers to downsize, but at least one plant indicated that it will end the temporary suspension. At press time, USDA announced that two U.S. government reports assessing mad cow disease in Canada are expected to be completed by the end of March. The agency is also delaying plans to resume imports of some Canadian beef until a review of recent cases of mad cow disease is completed. "We expect a final report on feed ban issues in mid-February and the epidemiological report by the end of March," newly appointed Agricultural Secretary Mike Johanns told Reuters. "These reports will be critical as we consider whether any adjustments to current policies are warranted." However, it was not clear in Johanns' written testimony whether the reports would alter the March 7 target date in the USDA's plan to reopen the border to more shipments of Canadian cattle and beef. In a statement, the United Nations says Canada's two recent cases of mad cow disease are isolated incidents and no cause for panic. In fact, better testing procedures brought the cases to light, one of the agency's animal production experts, Andrew Speedy says. "The three cases in Canada and the one case in the U.S. from an imported animal are isolated incidents," Speedy adds. Dr. Susan Brewer, a professor of food sciences at the University of Illinois, agrees, saying the logic in cases of even remote epidemic threat is to use as many tests as possible, especially since livestock is often shuffled around even after knowledge of problems. "Based on the amount of testing we have had over the last 15 years, the risk is very, very, very low," Dr. Brewer says. "It is politically charged.but now the agenda is a matter of testing and trace back: Where the animal came from, what herds it made contact with and where its trim went."
Japan's vCJD case
In the last 10 years, the disease is believed to have caused 148 human deaths in the United Kingdom, except for one Japanese victim who was believed to have contracted the disease while visiting Britain. Health Ministry officials in Japan say the man who died likely contracted the disease while living in Britain for a month in 1989, which was right around the time mad cow first surfaced. "We believe it is highly likely that he contracted the disease during his visit to Britain," Masahito Yamada, a Health Ministry panel expert told reporters at a Feb. 4 press conference. "We cannot rule out the possibility that he ate the infect parts at that time." The man was not identified by ministry officials for privacy reasons, but officials did say he began to show signs of the disease in late 2001, when he was in his 40s. The man later became bedridden, unable to move or talk, and died in December. The Health Ministry also indicated that authorities will also investigate the possibility that the man may have been infected in Japan. The Japan Times reported that although he first developed symptoms of the disease in December 2001, initial tests showed brain wave patterns similar to nonvariant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, which is not induced by mad cow disease. According to guidelines issued by the World Health Organization in 2001, the absence of brain wave patterns is one critical criterion when diagnosing a patient with the mad cow variant (vCJD). The health ministry's surveillance committee did not list the man as a vCJD patient in September. It was only after samples of brain tissue collected after the man's death in December that they found he was infected with vCJD.
Got the goat
It also took some time to determine that a goat, slaughtered in France in 2002, had BSE and not scrapie, a closely related disease in sheep and goats. BSE and scrapie are among the brain-wasting diseases known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs). "Although this is the first time that BSE has been found in a goat under natural conditions, precautionary measures to protect consumers from this eventuality have been applied in the European Union [EU] for several years," the European Commission (EC) says in a statement. "The level of TSE infection in goats seems however to be extremely low and any possible risk to consumers is minimal." The goat, originally tested under the European Union's regular TSE surveillance program, was one of more than 140,000 goats that have been tested since April 2002. French researchers first announced the finding of BSE last October. The French sent their data to the EC's TSE reference laboratory in England for evaluation by an expert panel, which confirmed the finding on Jan. 28. The goat and its herd in southeastern France were kept out of the human food and animal feed chains, the EC statement indicates. After the French announcement of the case last fall, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) milk and milk products from clinically healthy goats were unlikely to pose any risk of TSE contamination. But in an animal with mastitis, potentially infected blood might filter into the milk, the statement indicated. Both agencies indicate that there is no evidence of a link between goat meat consumption and an increased risk of vCJD, but such a connection cannot be completely ruled out. Meanwhile, the EC announced that it will increase BSE testing of goats for at least six months in order to find out if the case is an isolated one. Officials hope to test 200,000 healthy goats, focusing mainly on areas where BSE is present in cattle.
North America's Assessment
At the time of this report, the United States and Canada were juggling a host of BSE issues. The U.S. will delay plans to resume imports of some Canadian beef until a review of recent cases of mad cow disease is completed. Imports of younger Canadian cattle is set to start March 7 will not be affected. The U.S. banned Canadian beef and cattle in May 2003 after Canada discovered its first case of mad cow disease. That action, Johann explains, also addresses concerns over the portion of the minimal-risk rule that would reopen the Canadian border for beef from animals 30 months old and over, while keeping it closed for imports of older live cattle for processing in the United States. At the same time, Johanns says the U.S. will also move forward with plans to allow Canada to ship bone-in beef from younger animals. The U.S. since August 2003 has allowed Canada to ship boneless beef from cattle under 30 months of age, which are considered minimal risk for carrying mad cow disease. For groups like the R-CALF United Stockgrowers of America, Johanns' assurance is not enough. The Billings, Mont.-based cattlemen's association has asked a federal judge to stop the USDA from allowing livestock and expanded beef imports from Canada until the merits of its case challenging the agency plan are heard. R-CALF claims a stigma will be associated with the U.S. meat supply if it becomes mixed with beef cuts from Canada and that will have a traumatic effect on cattle producers in this country. The ban on Canadian cows had put a damper on business for Tyson Food Inc. (Springdale, Ark.). According to officials, the lack of cattle supplies from Canada is keeping costs high and cuts productivity at its slaughter plants. In early January, Tyson suspended operations at four plants and reduced operations at another, putting 2,100 out of work and reducing its slaughter capacity by 15 percent. Along with Tyson, Swift & Co. and National Beef Packing Co. LLC have cut beef production in part because they have not had enough cattle to slaughter. These meat packers argue that the USDA plan would give Canadian beef packers an advantage by allowing them to slaughter cheaper cattle north of the border and export the beef to the U.S., while denying U.S. companies access to the same Canadian animals. Production, however, will reportedly resume at a staggered schedule at Tyson plants in Denison, Iowa; Norfolk and West Point, Neb.; and Boise, Idaho. Second-shift processing at its plant in Pasco, Wash., was scheduled to resume Feb. 24. "While cattle numbers remain tight, we believe supplies will improve in the months ahead, especially as the anticipated flow of Canadian cattle resumes," John Tyson, chairman and chief executive officer of Tyson Foods, says in a news release. In a joint statement, Johanns and Canadian Agriculture Minister Andrew Mitchell says they discussed "moving forward in an expeditious manner" to develop a plan that would remove virtually all restrictions on beef trade between the two countries. Ted Haney, president of the Canada Beef Export Federation, told Bloomberg that the USDA's action is "discouraging and verging on the offensive." "This is not about animal health, not about food safety or science," Haney says. "This is about conceding to U.S. protectionist forces and specifically the National Cattlemen's Beef Association." At press time, Japan, the No. 1 buyer of American beef, had decided to lift its ban on beef imports from the U.S. Total U.S. beef imports, at $3.8 billion in 2003, have fallen sharply since the single case of BSE was discovered in a Washington state dairy cow a little more than a year ago. A Japanese government panel, however, has accepted a U.S. proposal on verifying the age of cattle, but said further study was needed to ensure the method was safe. Under the U.S. plan, beef would be shipped to Japan if it carried an "A40" USDA beef grade, mainly from cattle aged 12 to 17 months. Johanns has also requested an "action plan" for resuming beef sales to South Korea and other former buyers. Taiwan is expected to decide in early March whether to end its ban on U.S. beef purchases. -FQ