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Agriculture secretary: Mad cow risk to humans extremely low

Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman
Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman

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CNN's Soledad O'Brien talks to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman.
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CNN's Sohn Jie-Ae on Japanese and South Korean bans on U.S. beef.
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Journalist Steve Herman on Japan's quick ban of U.S. beef imports.
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• Mad cow disease was first reported in the United Kingdom in 1986, peaking in 1993 with almost 1,000 new cases per week. 

• In 1996, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD) was detected in humans and linked to the mad cow epidemic. Eating contaminated meat and cattle products is presumed to be the cause.

• Both are fatal brain diseases with unusually long incubation periods, often lasting years.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Mayo Clinic
CNN Access
Ann Veneman
Soledad O'Brien
Mad Cow Disease

(CNN) -- The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Tuesday it has diagnosed a "presumptive positive" case of mad cow disease in Washington state, prompting several countries to ban imports of U.S. beef.

Despite the first apparent case of mad cow in the United States, officials believe the public is not in danger. CNN anchor Soledad O'Brien spoke Wednesday with Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman and asked her whether any cuts from the suspected animal have been sold.

VENEMAN: We do know that the product has gone into further processing plants from the initial slaughter plant, and we are now tracing that product. We've issued a recall for about 10,000 pounds of meat, which is a relatively small recall, and we'll be tracing that forward to see where the product went and to remove it from the food supply.

Now, I remind you that we're taking this recall action in an abundance of caution. Because from this animal was removed the highest risk materials -- that is the brain and the spinal column. Those are the kinds of materials that would cause infectivity in humans.

And so we're taking this action in the recall of the animal and where it may have gone in an abundance of caution. We remain convinced that the risk to human health of this incident is extremely low.

O'BRIEN: At the same time, it was certainly surprising to me to learn that a downed cow, or an animal that's so sick it can't even make its way on its own steam to the slaughter, would be killed and then the parts could actually make its way to store shelves. That was surprising to me. Are you convinced that there is no risk for a problem with the meat cuts that end up on store shelves from sick animals like this?

VENEMAN: Well, the scientific evidence has indicated to us that the meat from such an animal should be entirely safe to eat. Particularly when you remove the high-risk materials from it, I mean, these are animals that obviously we test, we removed the high-risk materials, that's the brain and the spinal column, that would cause the infectivity in humans. But there is no scientific evidence that the meat causes any risk to human health.

O'BRIEN: I know at this time you test all of those downed cows, or the ones that are so sick they can't walk to the slaughter. But my understanding is that mad cow disease can incubate for up to six years. Theoretically, couldn't a perfectly healthy cow have mad cow disease, be off to the slaughter, and the parts you are concerned about, the brain and spinal cord, could make their way into human consumption?

VENEMAN: It's, again, unlikely. Most cows in this country are slaughtered at less than 30 months of age. And we know that those cattle are at very low risk of BSE [bovine spongiform encephalopathy, the scientific name for mad cow disease] because it usually doesn't develop in a cow that's younger than 30 months of age.

Again, I think it's important that in this country, we take every precaution. We have had a response plan in place since the early '90's, since 1990, looking at all of the high-risk areas for BSE. We've banned ruminant-to-ruminant feeding, we've had a testing program, we've had Harvard do two analyses of where the risk is.

And, again, we've taken every imaginable step that we can to prevent BSE, and if BSE were found in this country, which we've just found the first case, to make sure that it does not spread in this country. Again, we're looking at -- forward trace, the trace-back to the farm, and we're going to do a full and complete investigation of this case and continue to do everything we can to protect the food supply.

O'BRIEN: You mentioned that the farm in Washington is now under quarantine. What specifically does that mean?

VENEMAN: It means that none of the cattle on that farm will move off that farm. The owners of the farm have been very cooperative in working with us. They will be keeping all of their cattle on that farm, and no cattle will move off that farm during the quarantine. And then we will be looking at the herd, tracing the specific animal, any offspring of that animal on the farm and so forth.

O'BRIEN: Why don't we do what they do in Great Britain and across Europe, which is test every single animal that's slaughtered as opposed to just the ones that are downed or the ones that are clearly showing evidence of sickness?

VENEMAN: Again, we tested last year about 20,000 animals. As you know, in Europe, they had a very serious outbreak of mad cow disease. That was an outbreak that occurred before they knew much about this disease, which was really only discovered in the late '80's.

We've learned a lot scientifically about this disease. Again, we've had two reviews of our risk of BSE from the Harvard risk center, and we are confident that the steps that we have taken in the past have done everything we can to lower to the greatest degree possible our risk of BSE, in particular, our risk of BSE in the food supply.

Now, given the fact that we have now a single case here in the United States, we will be reviewing all of our procedures to make sure, from a scientific standpoint, we are doing everything we can to further protect the food supply.

But, again, I want to make sure that everyone understands that we have a safe beef supply and no one should hesitate. If there are questions that people have, I would encourage them to contact our meat and poultry hotline at 1-888-MP-HOTLINE and that any questions can get answered there.

O'BRIEN: One final question about economic impact. Looks like Japan and South Korea have said they're going to ban all imports of U.S. Beef; that's 46% of the beef imports. What kind of an impact do you think this is going to have economically for this industry?

VENEMAN: I think it's too early to tell what the overall economic impact will be on the markets. The markets have been strong for cattle in the last few months. There has been a strong demand for beef in the United States.

And we export about 10% of our beef that we produce in this country. So obviously, we're probably looking at some economic impact at this point. It's difficult to tell what the impact may be on prices.

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