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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, December 27, 2003

Hawai'i planning tests for mad cow disease

By Kevin Dayton
Advertiser Big Island Bureau

HILO, Hawai'i — The state Department of Agriculture is about to get directly involved in testing for mad-cow disease in Hawai'i in the wake of the discovery of an infected cow in Washington state, the first case of its kind in the United States.

Until now, the state allowed the U.S. Department of Agriculture to handle the testing, with USDA working mostly at slaughter plants to check animals.

Now state veterinarians and other state staff will expand that effort, with more visits and field inspections at ranches and dairies, said Jason Moniz, program manager of the livestock disease-control branch.

"We feel we need to get a little bit more aggressive to reassure and regain consumer confidence," Moniz said. He said the state effort will begin next week.

The first confirmed case of mad-cow disease, formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, was identified in a Washington dairy cow slaughtered Dec. 9.

The human form of the disease, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob, is thought to be contracted by eating meat from an infected animal, especially from the brain or spinal cord. There is no cure.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture plans to test 183 head of cattle in Hawai'i for the disease in the coming year. That is considerably more than the 20 head of cattle the USDA targeted for testing last year, Moniz said.

Moniz said the Washington case was not the primary trigger for the increase in tests. The federal government had planned to step up its testing effort before the infected animal was discovered on the Mainland, he said.

"USDA has been in the lead for that, but with the current situation and the need to regain consumer confidence, we will be stepping that up and be out there with them, putting some of our other activities on the back burner for a while," he said.

With nine dairies on O'ahu and the Big Island and more than 800 beef operations statewide, Moniz said much of the focus will be on reminding farmers of symptoms that may be warning signs.

Cows must be slaughtered to test them, with animals targeted that either cannot stand or show signs of a disease of the nervous system. Moniz said he has suggested to the USDA that the ranches and farms should be paid for the cows that are slaughtered and tested.

"It would just make it a lot easier if we could at least pay the farmer or rancher for the value of the animal," Moniz said. State agriculture officials plan to contribute time and manpower, but there is no state money allocated for the effort.

It is highly unlikely that Hawai'i would have imported an infected animal because cattle are rarely imported into the state, Moniz said. In the past decade Hawai'i has imported 1,485 dairy and beef cattle.

That low volume has made it easy to track and inspect animals brought into the state, so the risk that an animal brought into Hawai'i might have come from the same herd as the infected animal is "very, very, very low," he said.

Ranchers continued to monitor the situation on the Mainland but were unsure of the effect on Hawai'i operations.

"I think it's pretty well under control," said Pono von Holt, owner and manager of Ponoholo Ranch on the Big Island. "Right now, our main concern is consumers are inundated with all kinds of information, and hopefully most of them will respond with some kind of a reasonable attitude and realize that our food supply is very safe. This is just one instance, and we have the surveillance in place to find these kinds of things and then take care of the problem.

"We are concerned, but with all of the science that's behind this, we think it's under control," he said.

Moniz said beef prices have been at record highs over the past year, which may help cushion the impact on the industry. "As the investigation moves forward, the consumer concerns should be relaxed and the markets come back," Moniz said. "That's what happened with the Canadian situation."

Reach Kevin Dayton at kdayton@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808) 935-3916.