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Mad cow scare sweeps Japan, alarms major exporters


Japan's first outbreak of mad cow disease is rippling through theworld's second biggest economy, depressing sales of beef, puttingfarmers on alert and shaking the food industry.

McDonald's Japan has slashed its profit forecast, saying thesingle outbreak in September of the brain-wasting disease, knowntechnically as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) has spookedits customers.The impact is even being felt in the United States,which sells more beef to Japan than to any other country. U.S. beefexports to Japan are tumbling in the wake of the disease.

Some industry experts said that signs of improvement in beefdemand could begin to emerge early next year. But they cautioned that it could take more than two years beforebeef sales fully recover as cautious Japanese consumers shun themeat, ignoring government assurances it's safe to eat. Since a farm near Tokyo reported that one of its Holsteins hadtested positive for mad cow disease in September in the firstoutbreak of the disease in Asia, Japan's beef sales have tumbled40-70 percent, according to a recent government survey.

Among restaurant chains serving yakiniku grilled beef, about 44percent of chain operators said in a recent survey that their saleshad fallen by more than 50 percent.

The last time Japan faced such a huge slide in meat sales was in1996 following a widespread food poisoning epidemic caused by theO-157 strain of the E.coli bacteria. But industry officials say the damage inflicted by this singleisolated case of mad cow disease is even worse."In the past 10years since the market opened in 1991, we had a similar drop inbeef sales in 1996. But this is worse than that," said TakemichiYamashoji, senior marketing director of Tokyo-based U.S. MeatExport Federation.

The O-157 strain, which causes severe diarrhoea, vomiting andfevers that often lead to liver complications, killed 11 people andmade more than 9,500 people ill in 1996 in Japan.No one has fallensick or died as a result of Japan's mad cow outbreak, butscientists suspect that eating beef infected with BSE can cause avariant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD), a fatal brainaffliction.

In Europe, the human variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease haskilled about 100 people.

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