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As BSE Investigation Targets Cow's Origin, USDA Asserts: 'System Works'

Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Even as preliminary information suggesting that the BSE positive cow discovered Dec. 23 in Washington state came from Alberta, Canada, USDA officials said Monday Canadian records indicate that the index cow may have been brought into the United States as part of a group of as many as 82 dairy cattle in August 2001.

That information is key, USDA's top veterinary official told a national news briefing, because tracking the herd of origin is a vital first step in the department's investigation.

"The birth herd is the likely location where the animal became infected," said Dr. Ron DeHaven, chief veterinary officer with USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). "But we'll want to know what feed that animal was fed, and more importantly, what other animals were on the farm at that same time, where they are now and [whether] they might have consumed the same feed."

According to USDA officials, an ear tag number from the index cow matches an ear tag number from Canadian records on animals from an imported "herd" sent to a dairy finishing farm in Mattawa, Wash., in August 2001. From there, the cow was sent to the index farm in Mabton, Wash., in October 2001, DeHaven said.

USDA officials cautioned that current information is still insufficient to conclusively identify the birth herd of the index cow. Canadian records suggest that the index cow was born in April 1997, and DeHaven revealed that the owner of the Mabton dairy operation found records that also suggested the animal was 61/2 years. Most importantly, that means the index cow was likely alive prior to the imposition of the feed ban on ruminant-to-ruminant feeding imposed in August 1997.

"The age of this animal is especially important, in that it is a likely explanation as to how this animal would have been infected," DeHaven said. "Given the information we now have, it appears that she would have been born before the feed bans were implemented in North America."

As to the ongoing investigation into the BSE cow's exact origin, DeHaven said that APHIS has obtained tissue samples from the index cow. The agency is now in the process of obtaining tissues from calves born to that cow in both the United States and Canada, as well as semen from the suspected sire of the index cow in Canada.

"We will compare the samples from the U.S. side and the Canadian side to determine the origin of the index cow," he said. "USDA has begun DNA testing, and results should be available in about a week."

Regarding the recall of all beef from cows processed on the same day as the index cow, Dr. Ken Petersen from the Food Safety and Inspection Service said FSIS officials requested a recall of all meat from those 20 carcasses produced at Vern's Moses Lake Meats in Moses Lake, Wash., on Dec. 9. Petersen said the carcasses were sent to Midway Meats for boning and subsequently to two processors in Oregon, Interstate Meats and Willamette Meats.

"About 25 percent of the meat processed remains at the Interstate [facility] and has not been distributed," Petersen said. "Willamette sold trimmings to approximately three dozen small, ethnic stores in Washington, Oregon, and Nevada, and some of those stores may have distributed products further, resulting in a recall that now encompasses Washington, Oregon, Nevada, California, Alaska, Montana, Hawaii, Idaho and Guam."

The amount of product recovered so far is not available, Petersen said in response to a question from news media.

Throughout the briefing USDA officials have emphasized that the risk associated with consuming meat from the index cow is "virtually zero," noting that the infectious material is not found in muscle tissue or in beef cuts likely to be consumed by consumers.

Dr. Stephen Sundlof, head of FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine, said that FDA officials had identified the renderers that received byproducts from Vern's Moses Lake Meats and Midway Meats on the relevant days. He said all rendered byproducts involved have been accounted for and retained, and records at Interstate Meats and Willamette Meats are being reviewed to determine if those plants sent any products to rendering on the days in question. According to Sundlof, "it is likely" that FDA will be able to account for all byproducts from the index cow.

On the trade front, DeHaven noted that a U.S. delegation that included David Hegwood, trade advisor to the secretary of Agriculture, Charles Lambert, deputy undersecretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs, and APHIS and Foreign Agriculture Service stationed in Japan met with Japan's Ministry of Agriculture on Dec. 29. The delegation updated the Ministry concerning USDA' s investigation and purportedly extended an invitation to the Japanese to visit the United States to review the BSE safeguards and firewalls in place to ensure that U.S. meat products are safe.

The indication is that the Japanese team will arrive soon, possibly as early as the first week in January.

For more industry and scientific information on the ongoing BSE situation, be sure to log onto www.meatinstitute.org and click BSE information link on the Home Page.

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