By Roberta Rampton
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Hours after confirming to reporters that the United States had found its fourth-ever case of mad cow disease, John Clifford was ready to answer the world's questions about the safety of U.S. beef.
Clifford, the government's chief veterinary officer at the agriculture department, had quickly called his counterparts in Mexico and Canada, the first and second-largest buyers of U.S. beef, to tell them about a California cow found to have an "atypical" type of the brain-wasting disease.
Having taken up his post in May 2004, just six months after the first U.S. case of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy was discovered, he knows that sharing information quickly during the next 24 hours -- and in the weeks ahead -- will be vital for reassuring consumers, both domestic and foreign.
"It's critically important for the trust and continuing of the trade between those countries," Clifford said in an interview, trying to pre-empt concerns about the nation's herd that could send the multi-billion U.S. industry into another tailspin.
The first case of mad cow at the end of 2003 caused a $3 billion plunge in beef export revenues. Foreign trade did not fully recover until 2011.
Two more cases followed, the last in 2006. But since the disease was discovered in 1986, the international incidence of BSE has dramatically dwindled to only 29 cases last year, down from a peak in 1992 of more than 37,000.
"I think we've come a long way since then, and I think it's important for our trading partners in the world to start treating this disease the way it needs to be treated," he said.
He said the USDA will release information in coming weeks as it traces the epidemiological history of the cow - where she was born, what she ate as a young calf, and what happened to its "cohorts," other calves born on the same farm in the same time period.
Part of the U.S. message will be that the type of mad cow disease found is "atypical," meaning that it was much less to have come from contaminated feed.
"It is a rare form, and it is also something that we believe not to be likely to be passed from feed to feed," Clifford said.
STRUGGLED TO REGAIN ACCESS
Since 2003, when the first case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, was found in a Washington State cow that had been imported from Canada, the United States has struggled to regain full market access to Japan, its previous top buyer, as well as in Korea, Taiwan, and China.
Before daybreak in Asia, Clifford said it was hard to gauge how Asian buyers would react this time around.
"The impact should not affect exports. Now, I'm not saying it may or may not, but it should not," Clifford told reporters at a hastily arranged announcement at USDA headquarters.
The news conference had been moved up after rumors of the case roiled cattle futures on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, initially sending them down more than 2.5 percent for their biggest drop in seven months.
Prices rebounded in after-hours trading after the USDA confirmed the case, and said the cow had been found at a rendering plant, where livestock unfit for human consumption are sent.
CRITICAL TIME FOR BEEF TRADE
The discovery comes at a critical time for U.S. trade.
Japan, once the largest market for U.S. beef, banned imports from the United States in December 2003 along with many other countries and only partially reopened its market in 2006 to some beef and beef products from animals aged 20 months or younger.
Many top U.S. lawmakers have demanded a further opening by Japan as a "down payment" for Tokyo's bid to join negotiations with the United States and eight other countries in Asia and Latin America on a proposed regional free trade pact known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
Farmers are nervous about the impact the new case could have on trade with Japan.
"We're not always dealing with sound science, we're dealing with political science," said Tom Talbot of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.
The United States has also pressed South Korea repeatedly over the past eight years to lift mad cow-related trade restrictions.
The USDA has already armed its trade staff and veterinary officials at U.S. embassies around the world with the facts it knows so far about the case - and an overarching message of safety and prevention.
USDA officials will talk to their government counterparts as well as buyers in the private sector, Clifford said.
The emphasis is clear: this case shows that the system is working, not that there are new risks to fear.
"The U.S. food supply is very safe. We have a very robust surveillance system," he says. "That's why we were able to detect this case."
(Additional reporting by Doug Palmer and Martinne Geller; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)