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Mad cow in California: 2 South Korean retailers halt beef imports

This post has been corrected. See note at bottom for details.

The discovery of a dairy cow in California's Central Valley with mad cow disease is having repercussions worldwide.

Two major South Korean retailers suspended sales of U.S. beef Wednesday following the announcement, the Associated Press reported. South Korea's No. 2 and No. 3 supermarket chains, Home Plus and Lotte Mart, said they have temporarily halted sales of U.S. beef to calm worries among South Koreans.

“We stopped sales from today,” said Chung Won-hun, a Lotte Mart spokesman, as quoted by the AP. “Not that there were any quality issues in the meat but because consumers were worried.”

South Korea is the world's fourth-largest importer of U.S. beef, buying 107,000 tons of the meat worth $563 million in 2011.

The new case of mad cow disease is the first in the U.S. since 2006. It was discovered in a dairy cow in Hanford, but health authorities said Tuesday the animal was never a threat to the nation's food supply.

Mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, is fatal to cows and can cause a deadly human brain disease in those who eat tainted beef.

The infected cow, the fourth ever discovered in the U.S., was found as part of an Agriculture Department surveillance program that tests about 40,000 cows a year for the disease.

Tests are performed on only a small portion of dead animals brought to the transfer facility near Hanford. The cow had died at one of the region's hundreds of dairies, but hadn't exhibited outward symptoms of the disease: unsteadiness, incoordination, a drastic change in behavior or low milk production, officials said.

But when the animal arrived at the facility with a truckload of other dead cows on April 18, its 30-month-plus age and fresh corpse made her eligible for USDA testing, the AP reported.

The samples went to the food safety lab at the University of California, Davis on April 18. By April 19, markers indicated the cow could have bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease.

On Tuesday, federal agriculture officials announced the findings: the animal had atypical BSE. That means it didn't get the disease from eating infected cattle feed, said John Clifford, the Agriculture Department's chief veterinary officer.

It was “just a random mutation that can happen every once in a great while in an animal,” said Bruce Akey, director of the New York State Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory at Cornell University. “Random mutations go on in nature all the time.”

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-- From a Times staff writer

[For the Record, 1:47 p.m. April 26: The headline on earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that South Korea had halted beef imports. As the post says, two South Korean retailers halted imports, but the government has taken no such action.]

 
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