TOKYO - Japan and South Korea halted imports of U.S. beef on Wednesday after a cow in Washington state tested positive for mad cow disease, depriving American exporters of two of their largest overseas markets.
Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Taiwan and Australia followed suit.
Japan's Agriculture Ministry said the ban applied to beef and beef products and took effect immediately.
"Until its safety can be confirmed, we decided to ban U.S. beef imports for the time being starting today," said Yasuo Fukuda, the Japanese government's top spokesman. "We plan to recall meat products that might contain bits from cattle brains and spinal cords."
In Seoul, South Korea, the government halted customs inspection of U.S. beef, effectively preventing the meat from reaching the domestic market.
South Korea's Agriculture and Forestry Ministry said it also suspended sales of all U.S. beef already on the market as a precaution.
Japan, South Korea and Mexico are the world's top importers of U.S. beef, according to the U.S. Meat Export Federation. There was no word late Tuesday night of any actions by Mexico.
The federation said imports during 2002 totaled $842 million for Japan, $610 million for South Korea and $595 million for Mexico. However, the federation said Mexico was the largest importer in terms of volume, bringing in 349,900 tons.
Singapore, which has imported $7 million worth of beef this year, announced an immediate ban. Malaysia temporarily suspended its imports - about a third of Singapore's - as well.
In Canada, where a single case of the disease was found in May, federal officials said late Tuesday that imports wouldn't be banned unless the suspected case was confirmed.
Dr. Brian Evans, chief veterinary officer of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, said Canada was confident about the U.S. monitoring system, but would take appropriate action if there were any significant new developments over the next 48 hours.
Australia - a major beef exporters that stands to gain economically from a bans on U.S. imports - placed a temporary hold on American beef, Agriculture Minister Warren Truss said Wednesday.
"The Australian Government has decided to temporarily hold beef products imported from the U.S.A. at the border pending more information," Truss said in a statement.
Australia does not import fresh beef from the United States, only beef extract and dairy products that carry no risk of transmitting the disease, Australian officials said.
Stock in beef exporter Australian Agricultural Co. Limited jumped nearly 13 percent Wednesday in anticipation of new sales opportunities.
The actions by the Asian nations came just hours after the U.S. government announced that a Holstein cow on a Washington state farm tested positive for mad cow disease, marking the disease's first suspected appearance in the United States.
"If it's anything like what happened in Canada, it will be bad. The problem won't be that people will stop eating meat in the United States; the problem is the exports will be shut down like we did with Canada," said U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn.
Japanese authorities have been especially leery about mad cow disease since the nation's herds suffered the first recorded outbreak of the disease in Asia in September 2001, causing meat consumption to plunge. Consumption has since rebounded.
There didn't appear to be much panic at Yoshinoya, a "gyu-don" meat and rice restaurant chain where 99 percent of the beef is American.
"I knew about it, but when you get sick, you get sick," Naoki Enokida, a 32-year-old salesman for electronics company, said about the U.S. beef scare as he walked out after lunch in Tokyo. "If people continue to make a big fuss about it, then I may stop coming here."
Japan quarantined 604 cows in October to prevent the spread of the disease after authorities confirmed that a 23-month-old bull had a new strain of the bovine illness - the nation's eighth case.
Tokyo moved ahead with the ban despite assurances from U.S. officials that the American beef supply was safe. Japan banned the import of Canadian beef after a single case of the disease was confirmed in Ottawa on May 20, and Tokyo had expressed concern that some Canadian beef could slip into Japan via the United States.
While fresh imports have been banned, there was no widespread rush to pull American beef from supermarket shelves. A spokesman for Ito-Yokado, Japan's largest supermarket chain, said the retailer had faith in the safety of the beef already on its shelves and would sell its stocks.
Ito-Yokado imports its U.S. beef from herds in the midwest, far from where the infected Holstein was discovered in Washington state, the spokesman said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Taiwan said U.S. beef could face a seven-year export ban. Thailand's Department of Livestock Development said it has banned imports of beef from the United States.