Public concern is mounting in Japan where officials say they have identified Asia's first known case of mad cow disease. South Korea and Singapore have already suspended sales of Japanese beef imports.
Japan's Agriculture Ministry tried to reassure worried citizens Tuesday, saying that chances for a major outbreak of mad cow disease are low after it revealed that a cow had tested positive for the illness, formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). Officials say that their first priority now is to determine whether other cows in Japan have been infected.
Worried consumers swarmed the ministry Tuesday for more information on the risks of eating Japanese beef. Engi Matsuda is a spokesman for the livestock bureau in Chiba Prefecture, where the case was reported. "The Ministry of Health says that Japanese meat is safe and that there is nothing to worry about," he said. "If necessary, we will use the Internet and other means to deliver further information on the issue to the public."
Officials say that a five-year-old Holstein cow from a farm west of Tokyo was slaughtered on August 6 after showing signs of the disease. Tests on its brain proved positive. The animal's meat was not consumed and the Health Ministry has ordered the farm to stop selling meat from other cows bred there, though none are thought to be carrying the disease.
The news comes several months after Tokyo tried to block the publication of a European Commission report saying Japan faced a high risk for a BSE outbreak. The report, written by European scientists, highlighted the fact that Japan imported animal feed from Britain at the peak of its mad cow crisis in 1990. Japan banned such imports by 1996 and also restricts blood donations from people who lived in Britain.
The brain-wasting illness has until now only been confirmed in Western Europe. Its human form, called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, is thought to have killed more than a hundred people in Britain.
Cattle contract made cow disease by eating infected meat and bone meal or crushed animal carcasses. The animal disease is believed to be spread to humans when they eat contaminated meat.