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From the News Archives...

Mad cow disease infiltrates Japan

"I think there is a problem with our inspection system." With those understated words, Japanese Agriculture minister Tstuome Takebe apologized to stunned Japanese consumers for allowing a cow infected with mad cow disease to be ground up and converted into animal feed, potentially spreading the deadly disease to other animals and consumers.

How did this happen? The underlying problem is rarely discussed. Cows are not designed to eat cows or other animals. They are herbivores. In recent decades, however, they have been fed a bewildering array of "feedstuff," including the ground-up carcasses of other ruminants. One of the unforeseen consequences has been the transmission of bovine spongiform encephalopathy or BSE, commonly known as mad cow disease.

When animals are taken off pasture and fed an unnatural diet, stringent regulatory measures must be in place to ensure that they are not given contaminated products. Unbelievably, Japan continued to import feed containing animal byproducts until January of this year, despite the threat of BSE. Stranger still, some of the imported feedstuff came from the European Union, which has the highest reported incidence of BSE. (The United States banned the feeding of meat and bone meal to cattle in 1997, 11 years after BSE was first diagnosed in Europe.)

Early this year, the European Commission issued a warning that Japan is one of 70 countries at risk for an outbreak of BSE because it has been importing large quantities of meat-based animal feed from Western Europe. According to the EU, the Japanese Government blocked the publication of the report when it was made available in June.

In August, a 5-year-old Holstein in Japan showed signs of having some type of neurological disorder. Samples were taken to see if the animal had BSE. What happened next is unfathomable. Before the test results could come back, the animal was slaughtered and rendered for fertilizer and animal feed. The tests results turned out to be positive, confirming the first diagnosed case of BSE in Japan. Unfortunately, the diseased carcass had already been rendered and sent back into the food chain.

According to Hironobu Naito, managing director of the Japan Livestock Industry Association, "I thought it was something that could never possibly happen in Japan."


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