The United States has no plans to test all slaughtered cattle for mad cow disease, an Agriculture Department official said Monday, saying it is neither necessary nor justified.
At the same time, the USDA said its probe of the lone U.S. case of mad cow disease is winding down and will soon be complete, as it lifted a quarantine on five herds of cows tied to the lone Holstein in this country found to have the disease.
A few countries, like Japan, perform universal testing on their beef cattle to detect bovine spongiform encephalopathy, a fatal brain disease that can also be deadly to humans. But USDA Trade Advisor David Hegwood estimated that universal tests just on animals bound for Japan, the No. 1 buyer of U.S. beef exports, would cost $900 million to test $1 billion worth of exports, “so it’s just not worth it economically.”
Hegwood said 90 percent of all U.S. slaughter cattle would have to be tested to ensure universal all beef bound for Japan was tested.
“It’s scientifically not necessary, not justified and we don’t want to go down that road because it diverts resources from where we really need to be putting them in doing surveillance and taking other risk mitigation measures for this disease,” he told reporters.
Following the Dec. 23 discovery of the first U.S. case of mad cow disease, U.S. envoys have tried in vain to convince Japanese officials to lift a temporary ban on U.S. beef.
Hegwood was part of an American delegation in Tokyo last week sent to convince Japanese agricultural officials that screening measures put in place last month to guarantee the safety of American beef exports. But Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda said negotiators couldn't find a way to resolve the dispute quickly.
U.S. industry officials have hinted at a program that would certify for Japan that all beef destined to that market would be from cattle younger than 30 months. Those animals are thought to be at the lowest risk for mad cow disease. USDA has not yet commented on that proposal.
Probe wrapping up
As for the U.S. probe to trace back the single infected cow, which was born in Canada and slaughtered Dec. 9 in Washington state, Ron DeHaven, the Agriculture Department’s chief veterinarian, said the agency's investigation is coming down the home stretch.
Investigators' work should be wrapped up in a matter of days or weeks as opposed to months, DeHaven told a teleconference Monday. He said the USDA is still trying to identify all 81 head of cattle that entered the United States in 2001 from the Canadian birth herd containing the infected animal.
But his agency has removed hold orders on five herds that had been investigated, he said.
DeHaven said the herds were in Mabton, Mattawa, Sunnyside, and Connole, Wash., and Boardman, Ore. It was safe to remove quarantine orders, DeHaven said, because mad cow disease is not contagious and authorities have killed animals in those herds that might be linked to the Holstein cow found with mad cow disease.
DeHaven said USDA was now “really focusing” on 25 of the 81 animals that were born within a year before or a year after the Holstein with mad cow. The investigation has found 14 of the 25, he said. Overall, he said, 28 of the 81 cows from the birth herd with epidemiological links to other herds have been identified.