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13/05/02 . By Tim Large . Reuters . Japan  
Japan braces for fourth mad cow case  
TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan was expected to confirm its fourth case of mad cow disease on Monday, dashing hopes for a recovery in the crisis-hit food sector and setting off alarm bells just weeks before soccer's World Cup finals.  

Preliminary tests at the weekend gave a positive result for the brain-wasting disease, the first new case since November, and a panel of experts was due to give its final decision on the latest case in the afternoon.

The Health Ministry said on Saturday tests had confirmed the illness in a six-year-old Holstein cow from a dairy farm on Japan's northern main island of Hokkaido.

The suspected case comes just weeks before thousands of visitors descend on Japan for soccer's World Cup finals, being cohosted with South Korea (news - web sites), itself hit by foot and mouth disease in its pigs.

"It's not surprising a fourth case has been discovered," said Setsuko Yasuda, head of Foods Policy Center Vision 21, a food-safety lobby. "Given the disease's long incubation period of two to eight years, we've been expecting more cases."

"The government should start preparing for a possible outbreak of vCJD."

Formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (news - web sites) (BSE (news - web sites)), mad cow disease has been linked to variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob (vCJD) disease, which has killed about 100 people in Europe but so far no one in Japan.

The outbreak last September has devastated Japan's appetite for beef, battered earnings of food companies and restaurants, and shattered already fragile faith in the country's food-safety standards.

"This is not good for Japan's image with the World Cup coming up, and will certainly slow any recovery in beef consumption," said Susumu Harada, Tokyo director of the U.S. Meat Export Federation.

Most of Japan's beef imports come from the United States, although Australia is also a major supplier. Total Japanese imports are expected to hit 506,000 tonnes this year, down 25 percent from 2001.


The Farm Ministry last month estimated the total industry-wide damage of BSE at up to 380 billion yen ($2.98 billion), though signs had emerged last week that confidence was slowly returning.

The weighted price average of domestic beef on the Tokyo Meat Market hit 842 yen per kg -- a significant recovery from lows plumbed in September, but still well levels before the first outbreak on September 10.

The weighted average price stood at 1,197 yen per kg in August. Beef prices tumbled as low as 251 yen per kg in early March but have been rebounding gradually since April.

"I won't be eating beef anymore," said Toshiko Hijikata, a 49-year-old housewife.

"You don't know who you can trust anymore because so many companies, including those affiliated with agricultural and consumer cooperatives, have been involved in mislabelling scams."

Earlier this year, Snow Brand Food Co Ltd, Japan's sixth-largest meat packer, was caught mislabelling imported beef as domestic in a bid to get government money aimed at helping the local industry cope with BSE.

Similar scams at other firms have since come to light, shattering faith in food-safety standards.

Shares in food companies that saw their earnings plummet after September were holding steady ahead of the final verdict by the panel of experts.

McDonald's Co (Japan) Ltd, Japan's top restaurant chain, closed the morning session down 0.34 percent at 2,950 yen, compared with a 1.7 percent decline in the benchmark Nikkei average.

Yoshinoya D&C Co Ltd, Japan's largest beef-bowl restaurant chain, was up 0.93 percent at 216,000 yen.

All four cows that tested positive since September were born in early 1996 and are thought to have been fed a milk substitute as calves that may have contained animal additives infected with BSE.

Since October, Japan has tested all cows slaughtered for beef for the disease.

But experts say a good many cases may remain undiscovered, because farmers are reluctant to sell old cows that are past milking age to be processed into beef.  
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