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Farm officials say area's food supply is safe

December 26, 2003|by SCOTT BUTKI

scottb@herald-mail.com

Tri-State farm officials said Wednesday that the area's food supply is safe following Tuesday's announcement by Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman that a Holstein on a Washington state farm has tested positive for mad cow disease.

The disease only has been found in cow brains and spinal cord, parts of the body not normally served in food, said Don Schwartz, a Washington County Extension agent.

The disease is not contagious and is not believed to spread to other parts of the animal, including the parts more commonly used for food, he said.

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"I don't think people are eating fried brain or spinal cord," Schwartz said.

"How much brain and spine can you find in the grocery store? Not much," Franklin County Cooperative Extension Agent Philip Wagner said.

If follow-up tests confirm the initial results, the cow would be the first in U.S. history to contract mad cow disease.

A British lab provided initial independent confirmation of the positive test Thursday, U.S. agriculture officials said. The British lab will conduct its own test using another sample from the cow's brain, and final test results from Washington state are expected by the end of the week, an Agriculture Department spokeswoman said Thursday.

Also known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, mad cow disease eats holes in the brains of cattle. Outbreaks decimated the European beef industry and killed more than 100 people in the 1980s.

Animals can get mad cow disease through contaminated meat and bone meal fed to the animal as a protein source, but the use of such feed has been banned in the United States since 1997.

Craig Yohn, West Virginia University's agricultural extension agent for Jefferson County, said he does not know of any farmers in the region who are not following the nation's law about feed for their cattle.

Tri-State farmers and extension agents say they are curious how the animal got the disease and it is too early to speculate on what happened. But they say it is unlikely the problem will spread.

"I don't think it will be an issue. I think it is either very isolated or misdiagnosed," said Suzanne Hayes, branch manager of Morgan Stanley in Hagerstown. Her family farm in Williamsport has about 45 beef cows and their offspring.

The more direct impact to local farmers will be on any changes in prices and demand of American beef, Schwartz said.

Scot Poffenberger, who owns and manages a farm in Sharpsburg, said the impact on prices depends partially on the quantity and quality of media coverage of mad cow disease.

The family farm, which has 65 head of cross-bred beef cows, is what Schwartz calls a "closed herd," meaning the farm does not buy replacement cattle, but instead raises its own.

The practice, which the farm has been doing for 25 to 30 years, combined with the farm following the law on feed, means the risk of his cows getting mad cow disease is "slim to none."

"It really can't affect us that bad. Well, really, it can't affect us at all," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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