More countries ban US beef as officials trace BSE infection to Canadian cow

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The Independent US

Confronted with the various options available to him on the menu, Dick Nading had barely paused to lick his lips: it had to be a large burger and fries.

"This won't stop me from eating beef," he declared, as he walked out of Ben's Burger Bar and threw the few last mouthfuls of his meal to his rottweiler, Molly, sitting in the back of his pick-up truck. "I think this whole thing has got blown out of shape."

There are many in Washington State's Yakima Valley who might agree with Mr Nading - but others are not so sanguine about the BSE scare that has erupted in this remote part of the US north-west and which is currently threatening the entire $27bn (£15bn) American beef industry. Little more than a mile away, experts from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) were quarantining a second herd of cattle as they sought to contain the problem and reassure the public.

The officials moved swiftly after tracing two surviving calves of an infected Holstein which tested positive last week for BSE - bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease as it is invariably known. The first ever case recorded in the US, it is at the centre of the scare which has led to more than two dozen countries suspending the import of US beef - yesterday South Korea, the industry's second largest export market after Japan, imposed a formal ban.

The USDA said yesterday it believed - tentatively - that it has traced the infection to a dairy cow imported from Canada in 2001. Ron DeHaven, the chief veterinarian, said it was one of 74 cattle imported from Alberta, where a single case was identified earlier this year. All 74 went to a dairy operation in Mattawa, Washington, he said, but it was too early to determine where the other 73 cows went from there.

One of the calves is part of the herd in the town of Mabton to which its infected mother belonged, while the second was being fattened for market in a herd in the neighbouring town of Sunnyside, 180 miles south-east of Seattle.

It is hard to overstate the effect this scare could have on the farming communities of the Yakima Valley, where the air is heavy with a damp smell of manure that lingers in one's clothes and hair. Most of the population - the vast majority of which is Hispanic - is employed on the land, either in fruit or wine production, or else on the dairy farms which started to establish themselves here around 15 years ago.

"It's a shock, to say the least," said David Conradt, the mayor of Mabton and an accountant by training, as he sat in its tiny "City Hall". "None of us thought it would happen here. This could have a major impact on the community." Officials are believed to be already preparing to slaughter the entire 4,000-strong herd of which the infected Holstein and its calf were part. Sid and William Wavril, owners of the Sunny Dene Ranch to which the herd belongs, have so far refused to comment publicly, other than to say the USDA investigation is continuing.

Yesterday the farm appeared to be trying to go about its business as normal. Hundreds of cows milled in a huge feeding stall, heads pushed through metal bars. Reporters were asked in blunt terms to leave the property.

Mr Nading said he had grown up in the area and worked all his life as a farmer. He currently grew animal feed and made silage for the dairy farmers. "It is not just them who are threatened. I'm threatened, the people who sell tractors are threatened, everyone."

Ann Veneman, the Agriculture Secretary, said the lone case of BSE in Canada - which led the US to impose an import ban - did not dampen beef consumption in North America. But some may reflect on the outbreak in Britain in the 1980s which was blamed for around 140 deaths from CJD as well as the destruction of some 3.7 million cattle.

As officials provide advice to both farmers and suppliers, a number of grocery chains have already stopped buying meat from the suppliers to which the carcass of the infected animal was sent, and in some cases

In the Yakima Valley, at least, people do not seem too concerned about eating meat. "It's just one cow, right?" said Melissa Magana, an 18-year-old student, as she too stepped out of Ben's, also carrying a hamburger. "I have not been put off. You only live once."