updated 1/20/2004 6:03:25 PM ET 2004-01-20T23:03:25

Two more cattle herds in Washington state were quarantined over the weekend, as the number of animals linked to a cow infected with mad cow disease increased, the U.S. Agriculture Department said Tuesday.

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Meanwhile, a USDA-led delegation left Washington to meet with officials in Japan and South Korea, two of the biggest buyers of American beef until mad cow disease was discovered in Washington state on Dec. 23. More than 40 nations have halted U.S. beef imports, valued at some $3.2 billion annually.

Hopes that Mexico, another big buyer of U.S. beef, would soon ease its ban helped lift cattle prices on Tuesday. Live cattle futures for February delivery on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange rose the maximum daily limit of 1.5 cents to 80.20 cents per pound as slaughter plants bought supplies.

Six U.S. herds quarantined
One of the steps needed to reassure trading partners involves tracking down all of the infected cow’s herdmates that may have shared the same source of feed during the first few years after birth in Alberta, Canada. Mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), is believed to be spread through contaminated feed.

For several weeks, USDA investigators have been searching for some 81 cattle that were the herdmates of the Holstein cow found infected with the disease. The animals were shipped to the United States in September 2001.

A total of six American herds have been quarantined.

The USDA said its newest information showed at least three herdmates of the infected cow were sent to a dairy farm in Tenino, Washington and at least six went to a farm in Connell, Washington. That means investigators have found 23 of the cattle they sought, a USDA spokeswoman said.

However, the total number of Canadian animals the USDA is trying to track increased to 98 on Monday after officials said they confirmed a second group of cattle had been imported from the same Alberta farm where the infected cow was born. The second group came to the United States at a later time, but the USDA has not yet identified the specific date.

DNA tests have confirmed that the infected cow was born in Alberta, Canada, more than six years ago. The farm where the animal was born went out of business in 2001.

Of the second group of imported cattle, three were found at a farm in Quincy, Washington, which is already under quarantine, the USDA spokeswoman said.

Labeling law debated
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman was scheduled to testify on Wednesday at a House Agriculture Committee hearing on the USDA mad cow investigation.

The U.S. Senate, which resumed work on Tuesday after a holiday break, began debating a plan to delay a law requiring country-of-origin labels on meat sold in U.S. grocery stores.

The Republican-backed delay is part of a huge omnibus spending bill, already passed by the House to keep the government running. Tucked into the bill is language that would postpone mandatory labels, a measure that Democrats and farm groups say would deprive American consumers of information.

The labeling law is opposed by the U.S. meat industry and retailers, who say it would be too costly.

Separate legislation will be offered to ban the processing of all sick or crippled pigs, sheep and goats, said U.S. Rep. Gary Ackerman, a New York Democrat.

The USDA recently prohibited the use of downer cattle from being made into meat for human consumption. Animals other than cattle do not contract BSE, a brain-wasting disease linked to about 140 human deaths, mostly in Britain. But Ackerman, consumer activists and animal-health groups say injured livestock can raise other food safety concerns.

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