US, Japan officials meet after mad cow alert

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WASHINGTON, Mar 13 (Reuters) US Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns met with his Japanese counterpart to tell him of a possible new US case of mad cow disease that may turn out to be another false alarm, a spokesman said.

It will be four to seven days before scientists at an Agriculture Department laboratory in Ames, Iowa, complete two definitive tests for the brain-destroying disease, formally called bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE.

Discovery of the suspect animal came at a delicate time in US efforts to rebuild beef exports to wary countries overseas, especially traditionally major export customers such as Japan and South Korea.

Beef exports plummeted following the first US case, in December 2003, in a dairy cow in Washington state. The second case was a Brahma crossbreed beef cow in Texas in November 2004.

Johanns told Japanese Agriculture Minister Shoichi Nakagawa of the possible third case while in London for a meeting of the G6 trade powers, said USDA spokesman Ed Loyd. He said he did not know Nakagawa's response.

It was on the sidelines of the meeting on Saturday, said Loyd. The men had met a day earlier to discuss refinements to US meat inspection procedures in response to a violation of US-Japan beef trade rules.

Japan banned US beef for two years before relenting at the end of 2005. Then Tokyo suspended US beef imports on January 20 after its inspectors found part of a backbone -- forbidden under US-Japan trade rules -- in a shipment of veal.

South Korea was set to reopen its market to US beef in a few weeks.

USDA ordered the definitive tests at Ames after learning on Friday night that a brain sample from the suspect animal had yielded ''inconclusive'' results from less accurate, rapid-screening tests.

''This is not unique,'' said Loyd.

There have been five other ''inconclusives'' but only one finding of mad cow disease since USDA began stepped-up tests of older and ''high-risk'' cattle.

More than 640,000 head have been tested since the expanded surveillance program started in June 2004.

US farm groups took a wait-and-see attitude to the latest report. Since the first US case of mad cow, there have been ''enough potential false positives,'' said a farm lobbyist, that no one was spooked by a first-round test result.

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