By Randy Fabi and Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The first U.S. case of the deadly mad cow disease, which devastated parts of the European agriculture industry in the 1990s, was found in a sick animal in Washington state, the Bush administration said on Tuesday.
"A single Holstein cow from Washington state was tested as presumptive positive for BSE or what is widely known as mad cow disease," U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman said at a news conference.
The announcement led to an immediate drop in the shares of fast-food companies such as McDonald's Corp., and analysts in Chicago predicted beef and grain prices would fall sharply when trading resumes on Wednesday.
Mad cow disease, also known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, has never been found in the United States before. Scientists believe humans can be infected with the brain-wasting disease by eating meat contaminated with diseased brain or spinal column material. BSE is usually not found in meat like steaks and roasts.
"Even though the risk to human health is minimal, based on evidence, we will take all appropriate actions out of an abundance of caution," Veneman said.
She urged American consumers not to panic.
"I plan to serve beef for my Christmas dinner," Veneman added. "The risk to human health from BSE is extremely low."
A sample from the diseased "downer" cow -- one that is too sick to walk -- was obtained on Dec. 9 and tested positive, Veneman said. A tissue sample was being flown by U.S. military jet to an animal disease laboratory in England for additional confirmation. Those test results will not be ready for three to five days, she said.
The farm where the cow was found near Mabton, Washington, was quarantined, and the USDA will hold daily briefings on its investigation.
Mad cow disease has been widespread in Europe and has been linked to about 130 human deaths, mostly in Britain.
The $27 billion U.S. cattle industry has long feared an outbreak of the disease, which could result in vast financial losses. Other countries that buy U.S. beef and live cattle were likely to impose an immediate ban on American shipments as a precaution, analysts said.
South Korea, a major buyer of U.S. beef, is highly likely to halt imports of U.S. beef in response to the mad cow case, an official at that country's agriculture ministry said after the U.S. announcement.
U.S. beef exports amounted to $3.2 billion last year, according to the U.S. Meat Export Federation, an industry group.
Veneman said she spoke with U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge. "I would emphasize that based on the information available, this incident is not terrorist-related.
A single Canadian case of mad cow disease earlier this year caused an estimated 3.3 billion Canadian dollars' worth of damage on that country's beef industry.
Canada confirmed on May 20 that one cow in Alberta had the disease. Most countries immediately halted their imports of Canadian beef as a precaution. Canadian investigators were never able to pinpoint the cause of the cow's illness.
Because of concerns over mad cow disease, the European Union in 1994 banned mammalian meat and bone meal from being used in cattle feed, but has allowed the products to be used in feed for other animals like chickens, pigs and fish. Six years ago, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned the use of cattle remains as an ingredient in livestock feed.
Livestock analysts said live cattle futures on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange would likely open down the daily trading limit of 1.5 cents per pound on Wednesday in reaction to the news.
"It is a big deal," said Joe Kropf, livestock analyst with Kropf and Love Consulting. "Consumers cut back on consumption and countries, for safety reasons, embargo beef from affected countries."
A White House spokesman said President Bush had been briefed on the disease.