[EDITORIALS]A Scourge Moves Closer to Home

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[EDITORIALS]A Scourge Moves Closer to Home

The discovery of mad cow disease in Japan has shocked Japan and its Asian neighbors. Mad cow disease had until now been found mostly in European countries, including Great Britain and France. But the discovery is a warning sign that Asia is not a safe haven from the disease.

Symptoms of the disease were found in a five-year-old cow in Jiba Prefecture near Tokyo, and though test results have come up positive, no confirmation has been made.

The Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries is going to hold a meeting of technical experts to discuss whether they should ask the British veterinarian research center to conduct a reexamination.

However, Japan is already on alert. Consumer groups, which react sensitively to food safety issues, are demanding that the government transparently provide information on breeding procedures where the ailing cow was found.

The news has taken a toll on the stock of McDonald's, with Japan being the fast-food giant's second largest market.

Mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, causes holes in the infected cow's brain and is fatal. It has been traced to meat feed, such as the internal organs of sheep, and it causes proteins to mutate.

The possibly infected cow in Japan may have been fed cow bone powder, about 300 tons of which were imported from Great Britain before 1996. Given that the dormant period of the disease can be as long as eight years, it is possible the disease may have been caused by the British feed.

The problem lies in that the incident in Japan is not a story in a distant land. The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry have scurried to impose an embargo on the importation of beef from Japan. But it should remember that if it takes a lukewarm approach as with the fiasco over animal food scraps last spring, it will only fuel insecurity.

Mad cow disease spread in Europe after 1990, but South Korea imposed bans on the importation of livestock products from countries with the disease only after 1996. Further, Korea imported 300 tons of cow feet for food consumption from Japan.

If mad cow disease is uncovered and becomes a social issue, the damage would be astounding. In Europe, when the disease swept the continent in the 1990s, the livestock industry and trade as well as Europe's overall economy were hard hit and the effects are still being felt.

It would be troublesome, on the other hand, if an insecurity syndrome hits us, inflating the chances of an outbreak of the disease.

Domestic livestock farms are still suffering from the aftermath of the foot-and-mouth disease last spring, after which exports of meat products were stopped. To forestall further adverse effects of the disease, the government should transparently devise measures and thus wash away sources of insecurity.

In Japan, the government already has lost consumer trust because of the belated news that it turned down demands by the European Union for an assessment of the country, which the EU selected as a country highly prone to the disease.

We should also heed the European Commission's warning that there are no holy grounds to the disease and expand the sample of cows, currently at 700, inspected annually for mad-cow symptoms.

Korea should reexamine its livestock quarantine system and educate livestock farmers not to use food scraps as animal feed.

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