Veneman told reporters, ”A single Holstein cow from Washington state was tested as presumptive positive for BSE or what is widely known as mad cow disease.”
“Even though the risk to human health is minimal, based on evidence, we will take all appropriate actions out of an abundance of caution,” she said.
If confirmed by further testing, which will be conducted in Britain, this would be the first case of mad cow disease, also known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), in the United States. Those results are expected in 3 to 5 days Veneman said.
Mad cow disease eats holes in the brains of cattle. It sprang up in Britain in 1986 and spread through countries in Europe and Asia, prompting massive destruction of herds and decimating the European beef industry.
Creutzfeldt Jakob disease, a human variant of mad cow, has been linked to over 100 human deaths. Its victims probably contracted the disease from eating infected meat products. The disease is carried in nervous system tissue, not muscle, and is most likely to be found in products like sausage.
During Tuesday’s news conference, Veneman explained that muscle cuts of meat have almost no risk of transmitting mad cow disease. The tissues that could transmit the disease did not enter the food supply, the USDA reported.
A U.S. outbreak of mad cow disease could result in billions of dollars of losses for the U.S. cattle industry.
The CEO of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, Terry Stokes, told reporters in a conference call that the United States has systems in place to keep a case of mad cow disease from affecting the public’s safety.
On May 20, Canada confirmed that one cow, which was slaughtered in January, had mad cow disease. The discovery of the sick cow in Alberta triggered an immediate halt of Canadian meat exports by most countries as a precaution.
Veneman said the Agriculture Department has had safeguards in place since 1990 to check for mad cow disease and that 20,526 cows had been tested in 2003 in the United States.
“This is a clear indication that our surveillance and detection program is working,” Veneman said.
She said U.S. beef remains “absolutely safe to eat,” adding that she plans to serve it for Christmas dinner Thursday.
Veneman also said she spoke with U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge. “I would emphasize that based on the information available this incident is not terrorist related,” she said.