Just as U.S. cattle producers have been stung by the discovery of a single case of Mad Cow disease, Asian poultry producers are fighting a more widespread plague. Bird Flu has killed at least five people and infected millions of chickens across Asia. Officials in Vietnam and Thailand have ordered the destruction of millions of birds, which can transmit the flu to people. And trading partners from Hong Kong to the European Union are now banning imports from those countries.
At home, officials continue to track the whereabouts of 81 cattle that came from Canada ... herdmates of the animal that tested positive for Mad Cow. As of Friday, they'd found 26 of the 81.
Meanwhile, the official focus was on USDA's response to the outbreak and the subsequent rule changes for slaughter.
On Wednesday, Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman defended her decision to ban all meat from downer cows from the nation's food supply. The ban was in response to the discovery of mad cow disease in Washington state last month. Its aim was to restore beef exports to nervous overseas customers.
At a separate news conference, urban members of Congress concerned about food safety backed the ban.
Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Washington: "Well, it's time for Congress to get serious about food safety and it's time to make sure that down, sick, diseased cattle cannot get into the food chain. This policy that allows sick cattle into the food chain needs to be put out to pasture itself because it makes no sense to allow a cow that can't walk, that is so diseased, that could harbor these neurological diseases into our food chain without testing before. We're going to make that law."
Other lawmakers say the prohibition goes too far. They claim most downer animals are injured rather than sick. And, some are concerned that the downer ban could make it difficult for the government to test high-risk cattle for the disease. They worry that if the animals aren't taken to slaughter plants, they may never get tested. So far, most of the testing for mad cow has been done on downed animals that were inspected at slaughterhouses. Under the new regulation, those animals no longer will reach the slaughterhouse.
Along with the downer ban, USDA officials have strengthened regulations to keep central nervous system tissue out of the food supply. Animal parts most likely to carry the infection include those from the brain, spinal cord and part of the lower intestine.
Veneman also announced the Agriculture Department would test 40,000 cattle this year, twice as many as last year. 35,000 of that number would be downers.
Veneman's announcement of the downer ban came the same day Japan's government ordered meat wholesalers not to sell hundreds of tons of American T-bone steaks and other beef products imported before the country imposed a ban to U.S. beef in December. Before the ban, Japan imported about 1 billion dollars worth of American beef and beef products a year. Japanese officials are pressing the U.S. to test all American cattle for mad cow disease like they do.
The U.S. has not detected a second case of the disease, but has yet to track down all the cattle from the infected cow's herd.