updated 3/18/2004 8:23:16 PM ET 2004-03-19T01:23:16

The government has licensed a mad cow test that gives fast results and can be analyzed at many locations, a key step in the plan to increase testing, the manufacturer of the test said Thursday.

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Bio-Rad Laboratories based in Hercules, Calif., said its test could be used in the Agriculture Department’s main animal testing laboratory as well as in a network of facilities around the nation that the department will approve.

The department had said previously that it would expedite licensing of the tests, but it had no immediate comment on the company’s announcement.

The test checks for the presence of misshapen proteins, called prions, that cause the brain-wasting disease. It can give results in four hours and is almost 100 percent accurate, said Brad Crutchfield, the Bio-Rad’s vice president of life sciences.

If the rapid test results at regional laboratories do not rule out the presence of the prions, tissue samples would be sent to USDA’s National Veterinary Services Laboratory in Ames, Iowa, for confirmation. The results of such examinations can take a week.

Department officials announced on Tuesday that they planned a 10-fold increase in the number of cattle tested for mad cow disease in response to discovery of the nation’s first case of the disease last December. The use of rapid tests are crucial to expanding surveillance for mad cow.

Animals get the illness by eating feed that contains infected tissue from other cattle.

Before the discovery of the sick Holstein in December, only the department’s laboratory in Ames could run tests. USDA used to target 20,000 animals a year for testing. The new target is 10 times higher — at least 220,000 cattle, ages 1 to 18 months.

Officials are expanding surveillance for mad cow to determine if the disease remains in the United States and, if so, how widespread. Officials will focus on 201,000 or more animals that show signs of possible infection. Animals that the department deems as likely carriers include those that cannot stand at slaughter, are found dead on farms, or have nervous system problems.

As another precaution, the department plans to sample 20,000 cattle over 30 months of age that appear healthy, to see if the incurable illness is present in animals that do not show symptoms.

Mad cow is a health concern because people can get a similar brain-wasting illness, variant Creutzfeldt Jakob’s disease, by eating meat that is contaminated with infected tissue. It, too, is incurable.

The newly licensed test can be sold to regional labs and to the USDA’s laboratory in Ames, but the department will approve other tests, too, so the company expects competition, Crutchfield said.

Each test will cost $10, but the total cost of testing each animal probably will be around $20 when administrative costs such as labor are factored in, Crutchfield said. The company can ship tests within two days, he said.

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