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Japan suspects mad cow disease in 20-month-old steer

Updated:
TOKYO (AP) _ A 20-month-old steer in northeastern Japan may have had mad cow disease, and if the case is confirmed it could affect Japan's imports of U.S. and Canadian beef, officials said Monday.

A young Holstein slaughtered for meat last week in Fukushima prefecture (state), some 240 kilometers (150 miles) northeast of Tokyo, was found to have tested positive for the brain-wasting disease, according to Toshitaka Higashira of the Agricultural Ministry.

If confirmed, it would be one of the youngest cows to test positive for mad cow _ the common name for bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE _ in the world. The youngest as of 2005 was a 20-month-old cow found with the disease in the U.K. in 1992, according to Japan's Food Safety Commission.

Vice Agriculture Minister Mamoru Ishihara told reporters Monday the case, if confirmed, ``would be of a nature that would affect import restrictions on beef from the U.S. and Canada.''

Japan in December eased a two-year-old ban on U.S. beef to allow imports from cows aged 20 months or younger which did not contain body parts thought at risk of the brain-wasting disease. The trade was again halted after a U.S. veal shipment was found to contain prohibited bones.

The U.S., in contrast, requires removal of at-risk parts from animals older than 30 months, although there is a short list of tissues that must be removed from younger animals. U.S. officials have argued cows younger than that face minuscule risks of BSE.

Japan's ban on U.S. beef has been detrimental to a trading relationship worth millions of dollars to American producers. Japan's market was worth $1.4 billion annually when its government banned American beef in response to the first U.S. case of mad cow disease in December 2003.

The two countries are still negotiating possible safeguards that might allow trade to resume.

Separately, Ishihara said the confirmation of a case of BSE in Canada over the weekend would not influence Japan's import policy.

Canada confirmed a case of mad cow disease on Sunday at a farm in British Columbia, the country's fifth case since May 2003.

Mad cow is a degenerative nerve disease in cattle. Eating contaminated meat products has been linked to the rare but fatal variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

Japan, which tests all cattle killed for meat, has confirmed 24 cases of mad cow since 2001 _ including 3 cases this year, according to the Agricultural Ministry. There have been three confirmed cases of the disease in the U.S.
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