US probes possible third case of mad cow disease

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WASHINGTON, Mar 12 (Reuters) The Department of Agriculture is investigating a possible third US case of mad cow disease, officials said yesterday, in a possible setback after months of work to reopen beef trade with Japan and South Korea.

Results from two definitive tests on the dead cow will be available in four to seven days. The suspect animal was found when a brain sample yielded an ''inconclusive'' result in a less-accurate rapid-screening test.

John Clifford, the USDA's chief veterinarian, said there was no risk to public health as the carcass did not enter the food chain. The department did not say where the suspect animal was found or provide other details.

''Consumers ... should not read anything into this result,'' said the American Meat Institute, a trade group. It said most inconclusive test results had later come out negative.

Americans generally have shrugged off the disease, always fatal in cattle, since it was first discovered in the United States in December 2003. Per-capita consumption of beef has climbed since then and is forecast at 66.9 pounds in 2006.

Japan and South Korea, traditionally two major export customers, have been slow to resume trade despite US assurances that its beef is safe. Japan banned U.S. beef for two years, reopened trade for one month and then suspended it on January 20 when inspectors found forbidden spinal material in a shipment of veal.

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