Japan has started nationwide screening of cattle Thursday for mad cow disease. The testing comes as beef sales plunge after the discovery of the nation's first case of the brain-wasting illness last month.
Japan says it plans to test every one of the roughly 1.3 million cows to be slaughtered for human consumption in the coming year. It is the first country in the world to test all cattle for bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease.
The costly measure comes as worried consumers have cut beef purchases, threatening Japan's beef industry. The industry is worth about $2 billion a year. Surveys show that one in four Japanese has stopped eating beef and supermarket sales have fallen as much as 70 percent.
Japan's Agricultural Minister Tsutomu Takebe said at a news conference Thursday that he thinks the testing will restore public confidence. "We have now established a system by which the safest beef in the world is distributed," he said.
Japanese Health Minister Chikara Sakaguchi also is offering reassurances to the nervous public. "From now on, we will not distribute meat to the market unless its safety has been confirmed," said Minister Sakaguchi.
The government also announced Thursday that all domestic beef is free of mad cow disease - a claim that is drawing criticism from skeptical consumer groups.
They say the declaration is just an attempt to help the struggling cattle industry. Some experts on mad cow disease warn that the tests Japan is administering are not foolproof, since it is believed that no test can detect the disease in very young animals.
Until public confidence is restored, the government says it will buy all wholesale meat stocks to cope with the dramatic decline in beef consumption.
Mad cow disease was first found in Britain in the late 1980's. It is believed that cows get the disorder through eating meat and bone meal from other livestock, a practice Japan has outlawed.
Experts suspect that eating infected beef can cause the fatal human brain disorder, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, which has killed about a 100 people in Europe.