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Japan tries to stem fears of mad cow

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TOKYO — Japanese officials scrambled Tuesday to reassure a frightened public that they will do all they can to keep this country's first suspected case of mad cow disease from touching off an outbreak.

Officials said frantic consumers had flooded the Agriculture Ministry and the town office where the case had been reported for more information.

South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore announced Tuesday they would stop imports of Japanese beef.

The government announced Monday that the first suspected case of mad cow disease — or bovine spongiform encephalopathy — had been discovered in a five-year-old Holstein at a farm just west of Tokyo.

Officials said they would conduct further tests, but if confirmed, the case would be not only the first in Japan but also the first in Asia.

The government on Tuesday promised a swift response.

Officials say the main priority for the government now is to determine whether other cows in Japan had been infected.

"We're planning to announce a full action plan before the end of the day," said Kazuhisa Hoshino, an official with the Agriculture Ministry's animal health division. He said a panel of scientists was to make a final determination on whether the cow had suffered from BSE.

He added that the government may send samples of the cow's tissue to experts in Britain, the nation hardest hit by the mad cow scare.

Japan and other Asian countries had watched uneasily as the illness ravaged livestock industries throughout Europe and infected several people with its human variant, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

"The incubation period for mad cow is about two years. There are bound to be fears that there have been other cases in Japan," said Hoshino.

On Monday, the Agriculture Ministry said the Holstein from the farm in Shiroi, Chiba Prefecture, was likely contaminated after eating feed that contained animal parts. Mad cow disease causes dementia and eventual death by riddling the brain with holes.

The mass-circulation Asahi Shimbun said Tuesday in its evening edition that officials believe the cow was born through artificial insemination on Japan's northernmost main island of Hokkaido.

The cow lost the ability to stand in August. It was slaughtered, and a test of her brain revealed signs of the illness.

The cow's meat was never sold, but milk that it produced — up to 4,160 gallons — had already been marketed before the slaughter. Chiba Prefecture officials insist there is no danger to consumers.

Chiba is a main supplier of agricultural products to Tokyo.

About 30 other cows were being bred at the same farm as the suspect cow, and there are about 100 cattle in Shiroi in total — but the other animals are not thought to carry the disease, officials say.

Many have been quarantined as a safety precaution, but officials have yet to decide whether to slaughter other cattle.

Beef-related industries were already fretting that a BSE scare here may destroy businesses in the same way it did in Europe.

The share price of McDonald's Company Japan fell 2.5 percent, while that of beef restaurant chain Yoshinoya D&C plunged 9.1 percent Tuesday on the Tokyo Stock Exchange.

"Yes, we're worried," said Yoshinoya spokesman Hidetaka Baba. "The psychological impact on customers is likely to be serious, and they may just avoid beef in general."

Baba said the restaurant chain was already considering taking out newspaper advertisements to assure the public that its beef, imported from the United States, was safe.