Japan Reports Fourth Case Of
Mad Cow Disease


TOKYO (Reuter) - Tests on Saturday confirmed another case of mad cow disease in Japan, the first since November and the fourth since an outbreak last September that devastated the country's food sector and battered consumer confidence.
Just weeks before thousands of visitors are due to descend on Japan for soccer's World Cup, the Health Ministry said tests at a university in Hokkaido, northern Japan, had confirmed a preliminary positive test for the brain-wasting illness.
It said the case was still pending final determination by a panel of experts, which would make an announcement on Monday.
Formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (news - web sites) (BSE (news - web sites)), mad cow disease has been linked to variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (news - web sites), which has killed about 100 people in Europe but none in Japan.
The outbreak has gutted Japan's appetite for beef, battered the earnings of food companies and restaurants, and damaged the faith of consumers in the country's food-safety standards.
Satoshi Takaya, director of the health ministry's food safety division, told reporters the six-year old Holstein cow that had tested positive had come from a dairy farm on Hokkaido island.
Since October, Japan has tested all the cows slaughtered for beef for the disease.
The Farm Ministry said last month that it estimated the total industry-wide damage of BSE at up to 380 billion yen ($2.95 billion) but the report of the new case comes at a time when there were signs that confidence in beef was returning.
The latest case comes just four weeks before thousands of visitors are due to arrive in Japan for the World Cup soccer tournament, which it is co-hosting with South Korea (news - web sites).
South Korea has its own problems, confirming last week another outbreak of foot and mouth disease in its pig population.
That disease is considered harmless for humans, but threatens nevertheless to damage consumer confidence.
Cattle are believed to contract mad cow disease by eating meat-and-bone meal contaminated with BSE, but officials have not pinned down the source of the outbreak in Japan.
An investigating panel last month slammed the government for ignoring warnings from both the World Health Organisation and the European Commission (news - web sites) that could have prevented the crisis.
Japan's total beef imports are expected to hit 506,000 tonnes this year, down 25 percent from 2001. Most imports come from the United States, although Australia is also a major supplier.
The weighted average price of domestic beef on the Tokyo Meat Market hit 842 yen ($6.54) per kg this week -- a significant recovery from lows plumbed in September, but well off levels before the first outbreak on September 10.
The weighted average price stood at 1,197 yen per kg in August. Beef prices tumbled as low as 251 yen per kg in early March but have been rebounding gradually since April.


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