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Published: Saturday, 5/24/2003

A new `mad cow' scare

U.S. health officials had no choice but to ban the imports of all beef, cattle, and animal feed from Canada after a cow from an Alberta ranch was found to have mad cow disease. Even so, the decision is bad news for both the U.S. and Canadian economies.

Canadian officials insist that only one cow had the disease. But they don't know exactly how it contracted the disease, also called bovine spongiform encephalitis, so U.S. health administrators wisely decided to bar the entry of cattle from Canada for now, hopefully only temporarily.

This has heightened federal health authorities' concern about the brain- wasting disease. Deer and elk herds in some western states have variations of mad cow disease, and scientists worry that hunters who gut the animals and those who eat the animals' meat could risk developing the human form of the mad cow, which is called Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

A few years ago, mad cow disease destroyed cattle herds throughout Europe and the United Kingdom. This was just one cow, among 3.6 million in Canada, but Canadian officials struggled to reassure the public that no other cattle have the disease. The cow in question was destroyed, but officials are not certain whether the animal was imported to the unidentified ranch in Alberta or whether it contracted the disease in Canada.

Either way it has the potential to do great harm because Canada is the 10th largest beef producer in the world. It exports 78 percent of its beef to the United States. When news about mad cow disease spread, livestock prices dropped and forced a halt to livestock trading in western Canada. This won't help Canada's economy, already affected by the SARS outbreak in Toronto.

Although one sick cow doesn't mean an outbreak is assured or imminent, there are jitters on both sides of the border. Neither Canada's economy nor ours needs any more negative news.

Consumers and restaurant patrons will likely see a rise in beef prices, at least temporarily. But the important thing is to keep the disease from spreading to more animals and to humans. That's worth a little pocketbook pain.

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