Japan and South Korea, the two top buyers of U.S. beef, halted imports soon after the case was disclosed. Other countries, including Mexico, Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Russia, and South Africa, followed suit.
In Brussels, Belgium, a representative of the European Union, which already bans much U.S. beef because of fears about growth hormones, told the Associated Press it would not take any additional measures.
In total, approximately 10 percent of beef production in the U.S. is exported, according to the USDA.
Agriculture Department officials and cattle industry executives have tried to allay fears that American beef supplies were infected with the disease, maintaining the U.S. inspection system was working effectively.
If confirmed by further testing 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, Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman told reporters.
Appearing on CBS Wednesday morning, Veneman said “the risk is extremely low to human health and I would without hesitation say that no one should be afraid to eat beef.”
She also noted that since the early 1990s the United States has banned the use of cow and sheep byproducts for animal feed, which cuts off the major mode of transmission of the disease.
BSE attacks the nervous system of the cow, eventually eating 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 found in products like sausage.
“The important point is that the high-risk materials — that is, the brain and spinal column that would cause infectivity in humans — were removed from this cow,” Veneman said on ABC Wednesday morning.
Some consumer groups warn that it is possible for infected parts of the animal to contaminate some meat products. Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, told the AP that while whole cuts of meat should be safe, there could be problems with ground meat, which can be mechanically stripped from the bone near an infected part.
“USDA needs to take swift action to insure that the meat that is found in hot dogs, hamburgers and those others doesn’t pose a risk,” DeWaal said.
The beef industry assured the public there was nothing to worry about. Patti Brumbach, executive director of the Washington State Beef Commission told the AP none of the suspect parts of the animal made it into the beef supply.
Meanwhile, federal officials are trying to determine where the cow suspected of having BSE originated and to track down the other meat that was processed with that cow’s meat.
Mad cow disease is usually transmitted through contaminated feed and has an incubation period four to five years, making it important to focus on the feed where the approximately 4-year-old cow was born, USDA chief veterinarian Ron DeHaven told reporters Wednesday.
In the search for the birth herd, federal officials have identified two livestock markets in Washington state where the cow could have been purchased in October 2001, DeHaven said. Investigators hope to identify the birth herd within one to two days, DeHaven added.
The animal was one of 20 slaughtered Dec. 9 at Vern’s Moses Lake Meat Co. in Moses Lake, Wash., and meat from those carcasses was shipped to other processing plants on Dec. 11, Kenneth Peterson of the Food Safety and Inspection Service said. That meat was voluntarily recalled.
Food safety inspectors have been sent to four locations that received some of the 10,410 pounds of now-recalled meat.
The cow fell ill at large dairy farm with two sites and 4,000 cows in southern Washington state. All the animals on this farm have been quarantined and if preliminary testing confirms that the cow was infected, it is likely that other cows in the herd will be slaughtered.