updated 2/4/2005 1:03:05 PM ET 2005-02-04T18:03:05

Japan confirmed its first human case of mad cow disease Friday following the death of a man who had symptoms of the fatal brain wasting illness.

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Health Ministry held an emergency meeting to determine whether the man had contracted the disease by eating infected beef.

Masahito Yamada, a ministry official, said the man had lived for one month in Britain — where mad cow first surfaced — in 1989, but did not develop the disease until late 2001. He died last December.

“We believe it is highly likely that he contracted the disease during his visit to Britain,” Yamada told reporters. “We cannot rule out the possibility that he ate the infected parts at that time.”

Ministry officials said they consulted with British experts last year and initially ruled out mad cow disease but continued to follow the man’s condition.

Surveillance committee member Yoshikazu Nakamura said it is possible the man contracted the disease from eating beef in Japan and that ministry experts will continue to investigate.

167 cases worldwide
The human variant of Creutzfeldt-Jacob Disease has only been confirmed or deemed probable in 167 other people worldwide, virtually all of them in Britain but also in France, the United States, Ireland, Italy and Canada — though hundreds of thousands of people have likely eaten contaminated beef products.

Mad cow has spread through Europe and Asia since it was found in Britain. A fatal human form of the disease is believed to come from eating beef products from infected cows, especially tissue close to the animal’s nervous system.

Since it was first discovered in Japan in 2001, 15 animals have been found with the disease — known formally as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE — but there have been no human cases.

Tokyo has checked every slaughtered cow before it entered the food supply since finding the first infected animal. The latest suspected case was found in October.

Friday’s confirmation of the human mad cow case could hamper efforts by the United States to persuade Japan to ease its ongoing ban on U.S. beef imports.

Japan banned American beef imports in December 2003 after the discovery of the first U.S. case of mad cow disease in Washington state. At the time, Japan was the most lucrative overseas market for American beef, with sales exceeding $1.7 billion in 2003.

The two sides tentatively agreed late last year to resume imports of beef products from cows younger than 21 months old but later stalled over differences about how to authenticate the age of cattle.

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