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Friday, April 27, 2012

S. Korea grocery chain curbs U.S. beef sales amid mad cow scare

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) -- South Korea stepped up inspections of U.S. beef following the discovery of mad cow disease in a U.S. dairy cow that led two major retailers to pull the meat off the shelves. One company later reversed that decision.

South Korea's No. 2 and No. 3 supermarket chains, Home Plus and Lotte Mart, said Wednesday they halted sales of U.S. beef to calm worries among South Koreans. But within hours, Home Plus had resumed sales and cited a government announcement of increased inspections. Lotte kept its suspension in place.

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.

Reaction elsewhere in Asia was muted with Japan saying there's no reason to restrict imports.

The new case of mad cow disease is the first in the U.S. since 2006. It was discovered in a dairy cow in California, 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 people who eat tainted beef. U.S. authorities said the dead California cow had what scientists call an atypical case of BSE, meaning that a random mutation in the animal rather than infected cattle feed was the cause.

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.

The news spread quickly in South Korea, which imposed a ban on U.S. beef in 2003 along with China and other countries because of mad cow disease concerns. Seoul's resumption of U.S. beef imports in 2008 sparked daily candlelight vigils and street protests for several months as many South Koreans still regarded the meat as a public health risk.

South Korea imports U.S. beef from cows less than 30 months old and there is no direct link between U.S. beef imported into South Korea and the infected animal, the country's agriculture ministry said in a statement. The infected U.S. cow was older than 30 months.

But Odabashian said the agency has also vetoed efforts by private companies to carry out their own testing, at their own expense, and then labeling their product as BSE-free.

"Those companies in the United States that want to test their own meat have been prohibited from doing so by the USDA," she said. "We think that's wrong."
The cow's carcass was at a Baker Commodities Inc. rendering facility in Hanford, California, according to company Executive Vice President Dennis Luckey.
The company renders animal byproducts and had randomly selected the animal for testing on April 18, he said.
"We are in the business of removing dead animals from dairies in the Central Valley," he said. "As part of that program, we participate in the BSE surveillance program."
The sample was sent to the University of California at Davis for initial testing, which came back inconclusive. It was then sent to the Department of Agriculture's laboratory in Ames, Iowa, where it tested positive, the agency said.
The carcass was in quarantine Wednesday.
"We're waiting now for USDA to tell us how to dispose of it," Luckey said.
A USDA spokesman, Larry Hawkins, said the agency was not releasing the name of the dairy "because it's our policy not to when we are in the middle of the investigation."
But Rep. Devin Nunes, R-California, said it was from a dairy farm in Tulare County. "We did trace it back to a farm," Nunes said, adding that the discovery "demonstrates the strength of our surveillance system."
In a statement, California Department of Food and Agriculture Secretary Karen Ross said CDFA veterinarians were working with the USDA to determine whether other cows are at risk. "Feed restrictions in place in California and around the country for the last 15 years minimize that risk to the greatest degree possible," she said.
Eating contaminated meat or some other animal products from cattle that have BSE is thought to be the cause of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. The fatal brain disease was blamed for the deaths of 150 people in Britain, where there was an outbreak in the 1980s and 1990s.

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