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N.C. Cattle Business In Limbo During Mad Cow Investigation

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WARRENTON, N.C. — United States officials are trying to trace the life of a U.S. cow that had mad cow disease.

In the meantime, North Carolina cattle farmers are waiting to see how the disease affects them.

The market is playing with cattle farmers like E.B. Harris.

"Our latest shipment left 35 days ago," Harris said Friday.

Thirty-five days ago, beef prices were historically high.

"Nobody knew they would go as high as they did," Harris said.

Harris' last shipment has yet to be sold. It would have been worth $250,000, but one mention of one American cow with mad cow disease, and that all changes.

Twenty-seven countries have banned U.S. beef imports. The U.S. beef industry and North Carolina's $200 million cattle business hang in limbo.

"It's been most of what's pre-occupying my mind for the last 20 hours," Harris said.

U.S. and state officials say the public is safe.

"I encourage all North Carolinians not to alter their eating patterns for the holidays," North Carolina Agriculture Commissioner Britt Cobb said.

On Christmas Eve, Cobb reassured the public and reinforced safety procedures. Cattle farmers in the state

have to sign that their cows are not given feed with animal byproducts,

which is how the disease is spread. Suspicious cows are tested.

Still, Harris knows public perception is tough to control.

"The No. 1 thing is public perception," he said.

One thing public attention could do is expedite the tracking process of U.S. cattle.

Harris is part of a small group that tracks a herd's lineage. He said all American cattle farmers could be required to do the same within two years.

"I think it will come quick because of this," he said. "I'm ready for it if it does."

It is important to know that people can only contract the human form of mad cow disease by eating meat from an infected animal if it is mixed with the brain, spinal cord or nerve tissue. Human cases are extremely rare.

State and federal officials are taking no chances with the disease.

Friday, two Washington state calves were quarantiined. They were born from the cow that tested positive for mad cow disease.

Officials said it is unlikely the disease was transmitted from mother to calf. Their investigation is focusing on finding the birth herd of the infected animal. They say the cow likely was infected from eating contaminated feed.

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