WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States wants the world to start buying its beef again, after discovery of its first case of mad cow disease in late December, an uncommonly quick resumption of trade for nations wary of the brain-wasting disease.
Two dozen countries have banned U.S. beef because of mad cow, pushing cattle prices down by nearly 20 percent. Ordinarily, 10 percent of U.S. beef is sold overseas. The exports are worth $3.2 billion a year.
"Our goal is to see trade resume as quickly as possible," Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman said earlier this week, a view shared by the meat industry.
Formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, mad cow disease is caused by misshaped proteins called prions. It is fatal and can be spread by eating contaminated meat. The human variation of the disease is blamed for at least 137 deaths, mostly in Britain.
The Bush administration announced several new safeguards against mad cow this week, including a ban on use of "downer" cattle -- those too sick or injured to walk -- in human food and further limits on handling of cattle parts most at risk of containing prions.
With the new steps, officials said there should be no doubt U.S. beef is safe to eat.
U.S. officials will travel to Mexico City next week to urge Mexico, the No. 2 buyer of U.S. beef, to re-open its borders.
No. 1 importer Japan was cool to U.S. entreaties this week, but will send a team of food-safety experts to Washington in the next week or so to assess the U.S. situation.
In the past, nations could expect lengthy cut-offs in trade once mad cow disease was discovered.
When Canada announced its first case in a decade last May, the United States blocked all trade in Canadian beef and beef products until Aug. 8, when it said boneless beef from cattle under the age of 30 months would be accepted, along with boneless veal from calves, cattle livers and pet products.
Still pending is a U.S. decision whether to allow import of cattle from Canada, which used to ship 1 million head a year for slaughter at U.S. plants. The United States is Canada's largest beef export market.
Public comments will be accepted until Monday on a rule proposed by the Agriculture Department that would limit imports to younger cattle. USDA wants to bar cattle more than 30 months old from import because mad cow disease appears in older animals.
U.S. officials acknowledge they are asking for more flexibility from trading partners than the United States showed in the past. They say international standards have evolved as scientists learn more about BSE and how to control it.
"So, in fact, while we may have been part of the problem in the past, we have taken a very active role in terms of trying to change that standard," said Ron DeHaven, USDA's chief veterinary officer, during a news conference on Wednesday.
In October, the World Organization for Animal Health, based in Paris and also known under its French abbreviation OIE, said its mad cow guidelines "never suggested a total embargo of animals and animal products coming from BSE-infected countries."
The OIE said nations should calibrate their precautions with trading partners to reflect the situation at hand.
Meanwhile, investigators were trying to pinpoint whether the first U.S. case, a Holstein dairy cow in Washington state, had the same feed source as the Black Angus cow in Alberta, Canada, discovered early last year to have the disease. The Black Angus, which was born in Canada, was Canada's second case of the disease. The first infected animal found in Canada, in 1993, had been imported from Britain.
DNA tests were under way in both countries to determine if the Holstein was born in Canada. Results were expected next week.
Lower prices for slaughter cattle, coming after a spate of record-high prices in the fall, will bring lower meat prices at the grocery store in coming months.
"That may leave retail food price inflation back at the routine level of around 2 percent," said private consultant John Schnittker, who tracks agriculture and food.
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