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California mad cow disease: Quick response by beef industry

April 26, 2012 |  8:45 am

A rapid response by the beef industry helped avert a market scare after the discovery of mad cow disease in a California dairy cow.

The discovery was another hit to the beleaguered beef industry, which was affected recently by a severe drought in the Southwest that cut cattle herd numbers to their lowest level in more than 60 years. Then an intense controversy erupted over a filler known as “pink slime,” hurting ground beef sales. The industry was just regaining its footing when word came about the mad cow disease.

“They say things happen in threes, so hopefully this is the last one,” said Buck Wehrbein, who manages a feeding operation in Mead, Neb., according to the Associated Press.

With billions of dollars at risk, the USDA and other government officials responded quickly, explaining that consumers were never at risk because none of the animal's meat was bound for the food supply, the AP reported.

“It looks like that system is working, and for those of us in the business, that's a relief,” Wehrbein told the news service.

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

The infected dairy cow, only the fourth ever discovered in the United States, was found as part of an Agriculture Department program that tests about 40,000 cows a year for the brain disease.

The animal apparently acquired the infection from a random mutation, not from eating infected cattle feed. It was the first new case of mad cow disease in the U.S. since 2006 and came just as beef exports finally were recovering from an outbreak in 2003.

The World Health Organization has said that tests show that humans cannot be infected by drinking milk from infected animals.

The swift response also reflected a desire to avoid a repeat of the pink slime scare, which erupted when consumers learned that some ground meat contained scraps of beef treated with ammonium hydroxide.

The industry's challenges come as beef exports are soaring, hitting a record $5.4 billion last year.

Leading beef importers, including Canada, Mexico and Japan, responded quickly that the mad cow case would have no effect on their imports.


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-- From a Times staff writer