WASHINGTON - Just days after discovering the nation's first case of mad cow disease, the United States has lost nearly all of its beef exports as more than a dozen countries stopped buying American beef as insurance against potential infection.
Gregg Doud, an economist for the Denver-based National Cattlemen's Beef Association, said Friday that the United States, at today's market level, stands to lose at least $6 billion a year in exports and falling domestic prices because of the sick cow.
"We've lost roughly 90 percent of our export market just in the last three days," Doud said.
Keith Collins, the Agriculture Department's chief economist, said the market probably will not see the full economic impact of the mad cow case until trading intensifies after the holidays. He has said that 10 percent of U.S. beef is exported.
Japan, South Korea and Mexico are among the top buyers that banned American beef imports this week after the U.S. government announced it had found a cow in Washington state sick with the brain-wasting illness. An international lab in England confirmed the results Thursday.
As a safeguard, countries usually shut down meat imports from countries where the illness was found.
A U.S. delegation is leaving Saturday for Japan, which takes about one-third of all U.S. beef exports, and possibly other Asian countries that imposed bans on American meat and livestock this week. The Treasury Department said it is monitoring developments.
Mad cow disease, formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, is a public health concern because it is related to a human disease, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob. In Britain, 143 people died of the human illness after an outbreak of mad cow in the 1980s. People can get it if they eat meat containing tissue from the brain and spine of an infected cow.
Federal officials on Friday quarantined a herd of 400 bull calves, two of which were offspring of the sick cow. During its life, the infected cow bore three calves.
One calf is at the same dairy near Mabton, Wash., that was the final home of the diseased Holstein cow, one is at a bull calf feeding operation in Sunnyside, Wash., and a third died shortly after being born in 2001, said Dr. Ron DeHaven, chief veterinarian for the Agriculture Department.
"There is the potential that the infected cow could pass the disease onto its calves," he said. No decision has been made on destroying the herds, he said.
Investigators are focused on finding the birth herd of the cow, since it likely was infected several years ago from eating contaminated feed, DeHaven said. Scientists say the incubation period for the disease in cattle is four or five years.
Since 1997, the Food and Drug Administration has banned giving grazing animals feed that contains brain and spinal tissue to prevent the disease from appearing.
DeHaven said the investigation could lead to other states or Canada, which found a case mad cow disease in Alberta in May.
If U.S. officials determine the sick cow was imported from Canada and its offspring has been destroyed, they could protect the American beef trade from economic fallout, said Michael Stumo, an attorney for the Organization for Competitive Markets, a nonprofit group in Nebraska whose mission is to ensure fair markets for farmers.
But investigators have not yet found where the sick cow was born.
U.S. officials have repeatedly said the food supply is safe because the cow's brain, spinal cord, and lower part of the small intestine - where the disease is found - were removed before it was sent for processing.
Authorities are tracing where the meat from the animal was sent and the Agriculture Department has recalled 10,000 pounds of beef slaughtered Dec. 9 at Vern's Moses Lake Meat Co. in Washington state. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman said it was an extra precaution.