FRIDAY, Dec. 26 (HealthDayNews) -- With British confirmation that the United States does indeed have its first case of mad cow disease, American health officials are now scrutinizing the existing inspection process for meat.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is trying to determine whether to do far more screening and also change the way meat from suspect animals is used, department officials told The New York Times.
And a task force of industry and government experts has already drafted a preliminary plan for a national tracking system to quickly quell outbreaks of disease or threats of terrorism, the Associated Press reports.
The task force has explored tracking cattle and other farm animals with radio frequency devices in ear tags or implants as part of the U.S. Animal Identification Plan, which is expected to be implemented over the next three years, the AP reports. Other technologies may be required to determine the origin of several different animals that usually make up a batch of ground beef.
Meanwhile, USDA officials acknowledged that European and Japanese regulators screen millions of animals using tests that take only three hours, which is fast enough to stop diseased carcasses from being cut up for food.
U.S. inspectors have tested fewer than 30,000 of the 300 million animals slaughtered in the last nine years, and they get results days or weeks later, the Times reports. And according to Dr. Ron DeHaven, the USDA chief veterinarian, the U.S. system was never intended to keep sick animals from reaching the public's refrigerators. It is "a surveillance system, not a food safety test," he said.
The preliminary British finding that one Washington state Holstein had the deadly brain-wasting disease before it was slaughtered Dec. 9 came Thursday from researchers at the Veterinary Laboratories Agency in Weybridge, England, The Times of London reported.
"We are considering this confirmation," USDA spokeswoman Alisa Harrison was quoted as saying by the AP. She added that the English lab will still conduct its own test using another sample from the cow's brain, and those results are expected by the end of the week.
And on Friday, U.S. officials announced they had quarantined two calves from the cow, even though transmission of the disease from mother to calf is considered unlikely.
Despite the finding, which solidifies what U.S. officials first announced on Tuesday, health experts still insist the health risk to humans at this point is low.
"It's like an alert. We're not as safe as we thought we might be," said David Lineback, director of the Joint Institute of Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, a cooperative venture between the University of Maryland and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Nevertheless, U.S. food safety officials were working through the holidays to prevent a potential outbreak of mad cow disease.
But the world's largest beef importers reacted instantaneously. Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Australia, Taiwan, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Mexico and Russia all have imposed various bans on U.S. meat.
The Washington state slaughterhouse that processed the diseased cow's carcass along with 19 others on Dec. 9 has recalled all 10,410 pounds of raw beef it sent out that day, according to the USDA.
Vern's Moses Lake Meat Co. said it was conducting the voluntary recall "out of an abundance of caution," even though the meat "would not be expected to be infected or have an adverse public health impact," the AP quoted the company as saying.
USDA officials have said the diseased cow joined a Mabton, Wash., farm herd of 4,000 in October 2001 and was culled from the other cows after becoming paralyzed, apparently as a result of calving. After it was slaughtered Dec. 9, its parts went to at least three processing plants, which officials haven't yet identified, the AP added. The rest of the herd is expected to be slaughtered now.
USDA officials also said that the cow, which was believed to be 4 years old, probably contracted the disease from feed as a young animal, but that they did not know where it was born or where the other animals in that herd are now.
On Friday, DeHaven told a news conference that federal investigators will know "in a day or two" the herd of origin. But, he added, investigators have been encountering a "tangled web" in their efforts to trace the herd, which could delay a final identification.
The discovery of mad cow, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), in the United States was bound to happen sooner or later, scientists said.
"It was an inevitability," Lineback said. "There was a low probability, [but] when you have that many million cattle, that is still a finite risk of occurrence. It's just a matter of when."
But he adds, the bottom line is still good news for now: Go ahead and eat hamburger, or steak if you prefer. "At this stage of the game, I do not see warning people to avoid or to minimize anything," Lineback said.
One reason why experts aren't sounding more alarm bells is the high-risk portions of a cow -- referred to as "specified risk material" (SRM), which includes the spinal column, brain, eyes and other central nervous system tissues -- are supposed to be removed during the slaughter process in the United States.
"Based on the best science that we have available worldwide, the infective agent, the prions that are thought to be responsible for BSE, are not found in the beef muscle meat that we consume in this country," said Dan Murphy, vice president for public affairs at the American Meat Institute, whose member companies produce about 95 percent of the beef in this country.
"That is in sharp contrast to the situation in the U.K. and in Europe in the 1990s," Murphy said. The European beef industry routinely added spinal cord and brain tissue to food products while consumers regularly ate brains.
People can contract the human equivalent of the disease -- called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease -- by eating nervous system tissue from an infected animal and possibly through blood transfusions, U.S. health officials said. So far in Britain, where the disease first surfaced in 1986, 143 people have died from the disease and 10 have died elsewhere.
"In this country, even though obviously people are concerned, they should understand we are not at risk because we do not consume brain, we do not add spinal cord to processed meats and sausages and so forth," Murphy said.
The infected U.S. cow was known as a "downer," meaning it could not stand up or move on its own.
"Those are automatically considered a high risk-animal and therefore its brain was tested for the presence of BSE and that's how they discovered it," Murphy said. Testing is standard whenever a downer exhibits any neurological symptoms such as shaking or stumbling.
But how many "downers" are slaughtered each year is in dispute, the Times reports. The beef industry says the number is only about 60,000 among older animals, while animal rights advocates cite figures based on European herds that suggest the number is nearly 700,000.
The USDA says its best estimate comes from a 1999 beef industry survey that suggested there were 195,000 downers on ranches, feedlots and slaughterhouses that year.