TOKYO Feb. 4 -- Japan confirmed its first human case of mad cow disease Friday following the death in December of a man in his fifties who had shown symptoms of the fatal brain-wasting illness.
Health officials said the Japanese man developed the illness in 2001. They also suggested he may have contracted the disease while living abroad. Investigators are focusing on a period of at least one month in 1989 when the victim lived in Britain -- around the time that nation began taking measures to check the world's worst outbreak of the human variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease.
Tetsuyuki Kitamoto, chairman of a Health Ministry committee on mad cow disease, opens a news conference in Tokyo after Japan's first human case was confirmed.
(Koji Sasahara -- AP)
_____Mad Cow Disease_____
Japan Confirms Human Case of Mad Cow Disease (Associated Press, Feb 4, 2005)
USDA Chief Sets Sights on Beef Exports (The Washington Post, Jan 25, 2005)
Canada Finds Third Case of Mad Cow Disease (The Washington Post, Jan 12, 2005)
Mixed Reaction on Canadian Beef (The Washington Post, Jan 4, 2005)
Canada Is Checking Another Animal for Mad Cow Disease (The Washington Post, Dec 31, 2004)
The rare illness, clinically known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, is contracted through consumption of beef or other byproducts from infected cattle. Investigators here ruled out other potential causes, including a blood transfusion, leading them to conclude that the man had contracted the disease after eating infected food.
Analysts said the discovery of a human case of mad cow disease in Japan may hamper efforts to resume beef imports from the United States.
Japan was already facing a national beef scare related to a limited outbreak of the disease in its domestic cattle herds, in which 15 cases have been detected. Once the largest importer of U.S. beef, Japan banned beef products from the United States after a cow in Washington state was determined to have had the disease in December 2003.
Since then, Japan and the United States have been engaged in talks aimed at restarting imports -- once worth about $1.7 billion a year to the $30 billion U.S. cattle industry.
Public concern about beef's safety combined with the unavailability of U.S. imports -- usually far cheaper than domestically raised meat -- has prompted many lower-priced restaurants in Japan to remove beef from their menus and replace it with pork or chicken.
News of the human case of mad cow disease led the front pages of Friday evening newspapers. Consumer groups, the most vocal opponents of restarting beef imports from the United States, immediately called for an indefinite extension of the ban.
Critics have argued that the guidelines at U.S. slaughterhouses, which usually do not keep birth certificates of cattle, are not as stringent as those in Japan. Although Japan and the United States have broadly agreed to restart imports by this summer, the sticking point remains how to determine that beef is coming from slaughtered U.S. cattle less than 20 months old. That age limit was set because it is the earliest age at which Japanese testing on domestic herds has detected mad cow disease.
"We have been concerned about this for a long time, and I think this incident will make the public even more aware of the dangers of mad cow," said Yoko Tomiyama, chairwoman of the Consumers Union of Japan. "I feel this will only increase the public's opposition to allowing U.S. beef into Japan."
Japan, considered to have some of the world's strictest food guidelines, is one of several nations where the human form of mad cow disease has been detected. To date, the disease has been confirmed as the cause or deemed the probable reason for 167 deaths worldwide, mostly in Britain but also in the United States, France, Ireland, Italy and Canada.