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WASHINGTON - Agriculture Department officials said yesterday they may have discovered a new instance of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease, in the United States, after initial test results of meat from a suspect cow were inconclusive. It will be four to seven days before the potential case can be confirmed, officials said.
"The inconclusive result does not mean we have found another case of BSE in this country," explained the USDA's Andrea Morgan. "Inconclusive results are a normal component of screening tests, which are designed to be extremely sensitive, so they will detect any sample that could possibly be positive."
Morgan stressed that the suspect animal never entered the food chain. "If the test comes back positive for BSE, we will provide additional information about the animal and its origin," she added.
The first confirmed case of mad cow disease in the U.S. was found last December, prompting Japan and other countries to impose bans on American beef that are still in effect.
In the wake of this latest news, industry groups were quick to assure the public that there was no cause for alarm. "Inconclusive test results are just what they sound like -- inconclusive," said AMI President J. Patrick Boyle. "Regardless of the outcome of this test result, U.S. beef is safe."
According to Boyle, even if the test result comes back positive, consumers don't have to worry because the infective agent has never been found in consumable beef -- only in parts of the animal that are removed and not permitted to be sold for human consumption.
Additionally, he noted, the United States took proactive steps against mad cow more than a decade before the case was detected last year. Those measures ensure that any case of BSE will be quickly discovered and contained, and that public health will be protected.
Over 113,000 high-risk cattle have been tested for the disease since June under the USDA's enhanced surveillance program, Boyle pointed out, and so far there has been no mad cow detected.
"Consumers should have absolute confidence in the U.S. government's ability to respond to this inconclusive test result swiftly and thoroughly," noted Boyle. "If the test ultimately is positive, it must be treated as an animal health issue, not a public health concern. In fact, expert scientists say that thanks to U.S. efforts to protect cattle from this disease, the risk that BSE poses to consumers is so low it can scarcely be quantified."
On the other hand, the Center for Science in the Public Interest used the news to criticize the Bush administration's approach to prevention.
"Last December the Department of Agriculture promised they would implement a nationwide animal identification program, but today there is no system in place to trace an infected cow back to its farm of origin," said CSPI food safety director Caroline Smith DeWaal. "Last winter the Food and Drug Administration promised to ban specified risk materials from all animal feed, but the agency never finalized rules to accomplish this. Finally, there is no mandatory recall system in place if meat from an infected animal is sold to consumers. That's what happened last year when a BSE-infected cow was found in Washington state."
Waal continued: "While there is probably no risk to the public, the lack of mandatory animal identification and mandatory recall, and the absence of a complete ban on specified risk material in animal and human food, leaves consumers and cattle producers vulnerable in many ways if the cow in question is found to have BSE."