WASHINGTON—The United States, one of the world’s top beef exporters, revealed Tuesday that a case of mad cow disease had been discovered in California as it scrambled to reassure consumers worldwide.
No meat has entered the food chain and the cow “at no time presented a risk to the food supply or human health,” the Department of Agriculture said, pointing out that the disease, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), cannot be transmitted through milk.
Despite the reassurances, the case set alarm bells ringing as previous mad cow discoveries in the United States, Canada, Israel, Europe and Japan have caused disruptions to the global food trade worth billions of dollars.
A stream of sanctions and restrictions had to be introduced in some cases and entire herds of cattle had to be slaughtered, destroying the livelihoods of many farmers.
The US government went to great pains to stress that everything was under control.
“Evidence shows that our systems and safeguards to prevent BSE are working, as are similar actions taken by countries around the world.”
According to the US Meat Export Federation, beef brings more than $353 million into the United States, with Mexico, Canada, South Korea and Japan among the main export markets.
The United States has an estimated 90.8 million head of cattle, forming a large chunk of the economy in states like Texas, Nebraska, Kansas and California.
Around 40,000 US cattle are tested by the Department of Agriculture each year.
Samples from the infected animal were sent to a laboratory in Ames, Iowa, where they proved positive for a rare form of the disease. The results are now being shared with labs in Britain and Canada.
“The US Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has confirmed the nation’s fourth case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy in a dairy cow from central California,” the government statement said.
“USDA remains confident in the health of the national herd and the safety of beef and dairy products. As the epidemiological investigation progresses, USDA will continue to communicate findings in a timely and transparent manner.”
On the Chicago Mercantile Exchange the price of cattle futures fell on rumors of the news.
The biggest fear for US farmers will now be for sanctions on US beef, a possibility the Department of Agriculture tacitly addressed, and refuted.
“This detection should not affect US trade,” they said.
More than 190,000 cases of mad cow disease have been detected in the EU since it was first diagnosed in Britain in 1986, forcing the destruction of millions of cows.
More than 200 people around the world are suspected to have died, most of them in Britain, from the human variant of the disease, which was first described in 1996.
Scientists believe the disease was caused by using infected parts of cattle to make feed for other cattle.
Authorities believe eating meat from infected animals can trigger the human variant of the fatal brain-wasting disease.