Italians Given Mad Cow
Alert After First Suspected
Case Since 1994
By Raffaella Malaguti

ROME (Reuters) - Farm Minister Alfonso Pecoraro Scanio has warned Italians that more cases of mad cow disease might be discovered after the announcement of the country's first suspected case since 1994.

"We are a country that imports many animals, so we cannot exclude finding cases of BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy)" Pecoraro Scanio told the daily La Stampa. Officials said on Saturday they had found what could be the first case of BSE in Italy since 1994 in an animal from a farm near Brescia, in the northern Lombardy region. It was not yet clear whether the animal was Italian-born or imported. The health ministry said initial tests on the suspect animal had given "doubtful results" and the case had been passed to the national animal health institute in Turin. Final results are expected on Tuesday but the head of the Turin-based institute said it was likely they would confirm the presence of the disease. "It is very probable, that our three exams...will confirm the tests carried out very seriously in Brescia," institute head Enrico Beccaria told the news agency ANSA.

The tests were part of obligatory BSE checks on all cattle over 30 months old, introduced recently by the European Union. Pecoraro Scanio later said Italy had so far carried out only about 2,500 tests out of 500,000 expected this year. "European statistics show that by the time we have done all 500,000 tests planned for this year, we shall probably have found some other cases," he said. The minister said that if the Turin tests proved positive, the government would take action, including checking to see if the cow had eaten meat-based animal feed. Italy banned meat-based animal feed for cattle -- which experts believe was the cause of BSE -- in 1994. It extended the ban to all herbivores in November after the rise in BSE cases in Europe. ITALIAN OR IMPORTED ? The suspect cow was among a herd of 150 dairy cows raised in the village of Pontevico on a farm which police cordoned off late on Saturday. The health ministry said the animal was slaughtered at a slaughterhouse run by INALCA, a subsidiary of Cremonini, which is Italy's biggest meat distributor and supplies McDonald's fast food outlets in Italy.

The ministry said it was the first case of suspected BSE detected among Italian cattle, while the magistrate who ordered the farm to be cordoned off was quoted in the media as saying the animal was "born and raised on the farm". But Pecoraro Scanio said the cow "appears to be an animal imported from abroad and then registered in Italy". Two confirmed cases of BSE were detected in Italy in 1994. Both were imported British cows which were destroyed. IMPACT ON CONSUMERS EXPECTED Consumer associations have accused Italy of falling behind with BSE checks and predicted a drop in beef consumption. One of the country's biggest consumer groups, CODACONS, asked on Sunday for obligatory tests to be carried out also on animals younger than 30 months. Pecoraro Scanio said he expected "a strong psychological impact" on consumers when shops opened on Monday, despite his assurances that there was no danger for humans and that all the beef on shop counters had been tested.

Beef prices dropped in Italy in November, after a ban on imports of live cattle from France pushed up demand for white meat and fish. The price of beef recovered after Christmas. Many scientists believe that humans who catch new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD), the human equivalent of BSE, do so as a result of eating BSE- infected beef. More than 80 people in Britain and two in France have died of vCJD. It is not known how long vCJD takes to develop or how little BSE-infected meat it takes to infect the eater.

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