WASHINGTON, Oct. 7 (UPI) -- The latest case of mad cow disease in Japan raises concerns the decision by the U.S. government to reopen its border to Canadian beef has allowed mad-cow-infected cattle into the country, consumer advocates and a former U.S. Department of Agriculture veterinarian told United Press International.
The Japanese case also exposes gaps in the U.S. surveillance program for mad cow, which can cause an agonizing and always-fatal equivalent in humans known as variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.
Japanese authorities reported late Monday a 23-month-old bull slaughtered in Ibaraki Prefecture -- Japan's equivalent of a state or province -- on Sept. 29, tested positive for mad cow disease. This is the eighth case of mad cow detected in the country.
Finding the disease in such a young animal could have global implications because it was widely thought mad cow does not develop until cattle are 2-to-3 years old, such as most of the cattle infected in the United Kingdom, which has experienced the largest outbreak to date. As a result, some European countries and the United Kingdom do not test for the disease unless the animal is at least 24 months of age. Many do not begin testing until 30 months.
The USDA decided in August to reopen the border to Canadian beef after a single case of mad cow was discovered in that country in May. Despite the concerns of consumer groups, officials decided to allow Canadian imports of cattle younger than 30 months -- based in part, they said, on the fact these animals were considered low risk.
"The implications of this case are not good for the USDA because it suggests infected animals could be coming over from Canada into the United States and into our food supply," Michael Hansen, a senior research associate with Consumers Union in Yonkers, N.Y., who has focused on mad cow issues, told UPI.
Former USDA veterinarian Lester Friedlander said the Japanese case shows how "the American and the European system isn't working."
In order to ensure the safety of meat, he said, all cattle should be tested, which is what Japan's system entails. So far, the USDA has resisted such a strategy. Currently, the agency tests less than 1 percent of U.S. cattle. "The USDA is doing nothing to get the confidence of the U.S. consumer," Friedlander commented.
Hansen noted, however, testing all cattle might not represent a solution because the USDA's current test of choice, called an immunohistochemistry assay, was used by Japanese authorities in the Ibaraki bull and failed to detect the disease. Only when authorities used a different type of test, called a Western blot, was mad cow revealed in the animal. This indicates the USDA should not only change its system to test younger animals routinely, but it also should employ a different test, he said.
The finding also might have trade repercussions for the United States because it could lead Japan to stop importing American beef, Hansen continued. Japan is the largest importer of U.S. beef, so such a decision could have a significant impact on the meat industry.
Japanese authorities already had expressed concern about American beef imports possibly being infected with mad cow after the Canadian case was reported, so the revelation that the disease can occur in younger cattle than previously thought should reduce confidence in U.S. beef safety even further, Hansen said.
The USDA would not comment on how the Japanese case might affect its mad cow surveillance program. "It's still a little premature to really say," agency spokeswoman Julie Quick told UPI. "We're still working to get further details about this case in Japan."
Quick said USDA inspectors likely would have caught the Japanese bull because the department's program is not dependent on the age of the animal. Rather, it calls for testing whenever an animal displays mad cow symptoms.
However, Friedlander said that approach is flawed in today's environment of mass slaughterhouses, where more than 2,000 cattle are killed on a typical day. USDA inspectors are required to observe the cattle before they go to slaughter, but such a high number of animals may produce groups "running four or five abreast ... so as a veterinarian, I can't see all the animals. It's impossible," he said.
This means "many cattle" showing symptoms of mad cow disease -- such as abnormal gait, facial paralysis or drooping ears -- could go undetected and never be selected for testing, he explained. The solution, he added, is to test every slaughtered cow for the disease to eliminate doubt from the minds of consumers or officials in importing countries.
Testing every animal would raise beef prices, but Friedlander dismissed such concerns. "Don't worry about consumers. We'll pay the extra price just to make sure we're not going to die from mad cow," he said.