Sick cow's meat may have gone to 8 states

By Emily Gersema
Associated Press / December 29, 2003

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WASHINGTON -- Meat from a Holstein sick with mad cow disease could have reached retail markets in eight states and one territory, but poses no health risk, Agriculture Department officials said yesterday.

Dr. Kenneth Petersen, an Agriculture Department veterinarian, said investigators have determined that some of the meat from the diseased dairy cow slaughtered Dec. 9 in Washington state could have gone to Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, and Guam. Earlier, officials had said most of the meat went to Washington and Oregon, with lesser amounts to California and Nevada, for distribution to consumers.

"The recalled meat represents essentially zero risk to consumers," said Petersen, of the USDA's food safety agency.

He said the parts most likely to carry infection -- the brain, spinal cord, and lower intestine -- were removed before the meat from the infected cow was cut and processed for human consumption.

Mad cow disease, officially called bovine spongiform encephalopathy, is a concern because humans who eat brain or spinal matter from an infected cow can develop a related brain-wasting illness, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. In Britain, 143 people died of it after an outbreak of mad cow in the 1980s.

Despite their assurances of food safety, federal officials have taken the precaution of recalling 10,000 pounds of meat from the infected cow and from 19 others slaughtered Dec. 9 at Vern's Moses Lake Meat Co., in Moses Lake, Wash.

Because it is not known exactly what parts of the 10,000 pounds slaughtered there that day came from the diseased cow, health authorities must work on the possibility that some meat from the diseased cow could have reached any location where any part of the 10,000 pounds was distributed.

Officials say they are still recovering meat and won't know how much has been returned until later this week.

Petersen said: "We expect by now that many of the customers who may have purchased some of this meat have been notified by the grocery chain or other store where perhaps they purchased it. If not, they can contact those stores" related to the recall.

Petersen said the slaughtered cow was deboned at Midway Meats in Centralia, Wash., and sent Dec. 12 to two other plants, Willamette Valley Meat and Interstate Meat, both near Portland, Ore. Petersen has said those facilities are holding much of the meat.

Willamette also received beef trimmings, parts used in meats such as hamburger. Officials say those were sold to some three dozen small, mom-and-pop Asian and Mexican facilities in Washington, Oregon, California, and Nevada.

Supermarket chains in the West -- Albertsons, Fred Meyer, Safeway, and WinCo Foods -- have voluntarily removed ground beef products from the affected distributors. Safeway has said it will look for another supplier.

Despite assurances that American beef is safe, Japan and more than two dozen countries have blocked US beef imports. Jordan and Lebanon joined the list yesterday. US beef industry officials this week estimated it has lost 90 percent of their export market because of the bans.

US agriculture officials arrived yesterday in Japan to discuss maintaining beef trade even as the United States investigates how the Holstein in Washington state got sick.

Dr. Ron DeHaven, chief veterinarian for USDA, said yesterday that science has shown that certain meat cuts are fairly safe from infection. Among those are whole cuts without bones, such as beef steaks, roast, liver, and ground beef from labeled cuts like chuck or round.

DeHaven said this suggests the trade restrictions "are not well-founded in science."

Investigators have tentatively traced the first US cow with mad cow disease to Canada. This could help determine the scope of the outbreak and might even limit the economic damage to the American beef industry.

The tentative finding traced the cow to Alberta, the same Canadian province where scientists found a lone cow infected with the illness in May.

DeHaven stressed that officials still haven't confirmed its origin, because US records outlining the animal's history do not match ones in Canada. Canadian officials have said it was premature to reach a firm conclusion.

The department said DNA tests will help resolve the matter.

Canadian documents show the cow had two calves before it arrived in the United States, contrary to US records, which said it had never borne calves.

Also, Canadian documents say the diseased cow was 6 1/2 years old, but US records say it was younger, about 4 to 4 1/2 years old.

The cow's age is significant because it may have been born before 1997, when the United States and Canada banned certain feed that is considered the most likely source of infection.