Breaking News Inconclusive BSE Results; Hong Kong Finds Bones Stressing that the announcement doesn't necessarily mean the U.S. has its third case of BSE since late December 2003, USDA announced late Friday news of inconclusive BSE tests on an unidentified animal. USDA's Animal Plant Health Inspection Service said the animal was discovered with rapid tests as part of its enhanced BSE surveillance program. APHIS officials stressed that the animal did not enter the human food or animal feed supply.

USDA says confirmatory testing on the suspect animal's samples are underway at the National Veterinary Services Lab in Ames, IA. That testing includes use of both the immunohistochemistry (IHC) analysis, which is regarded as the gold standard test, and the Western blot test. Results are expected within 4-7 days. As is USDA's custom, the agency is withholding information on the location, breed and owner of the suspect animal.

In a Saturday release from USDA, Chief Veterinary Medical Officer John Clifford said: "This inconclusive result does not mean we have found a new case of BSE. Inconclusive results are a normal component of most screening tests, which are designed to be extremely sensitive so they will detect any sample that could possibly be positive."

Clifford also pointed out that, since June 2004, more than 640,000 animals from the highest-risk populations, and more than 20,000 from clinically normal, older animals, have been tested as part of USDA's enhanced BSE surveillance program.

"To date, only one of these highest risk animals has tested positive for the disease as part of the surveillance program," he said.

The announcement comes at a particularly sensitive time for those working to recover U.S. beef export markets. About two-thirds of lost markets have been recovered thus far, with the mid-December 2005 reopening of Japan -- restricted to boneless beef from animals 20 months of age and younger -- being the most significant.

That Japan market, however, closed just a month later when airport inspectors in Tokyo found vertebral column in a shipment of veal sent from Brooklyn, NY-based Atlantic Veal and Lamb. Following submission of a 375-page report from USDA to Japan detailing the incident and the remedial actions taken to prevent such further incidents, negotiations between the two countries continue.

In an ongoing saga of irony that the BSE situation seems to produce, USDA Secretary Mike Johanns met with his Japanese counterpart, Shoichi Nakagawa, last Friday in the UK to push for quick reopening of that market to U.S. beef imports. Both were in London for global trade meetings. The AP reports that Johanns briefed Nakagawa on the latest suspect case.

Japan Today quoted Nakagawa today as saying: "We are now in the stage of step by step," as Japan "carefully weighs the terms and timing for a resumption of U.S. beef imports."

Thus far, the U.S. has found just two confirmed cases of BSE-infected animals -- the Dec. 23 case of a Washington State cow of Canadian origin, and a second case of a domestic cow in Texas. Since USDA adopted its enhanced surveillance program a total of five "inconclusive" results have been found, with one positive confirmation -- the June 2005 case in the Texas cow.

In other BSE-related news, Hong Kong suspended beef imports from a plant owned by Colorado-based Swift Beef Company. Kyodo News reports today that the closure followed the Friday discovery of a shipment of beef "containing banned cattle parts." Other reports said bone included in the shipment violated the restrictions negotiated and put in place when Hong Kong reopened its market to U.S. beef in December 2005. That agreement calls for export of only boneless product from animal 30 months of age and younger.

In addition, the Kyodo News report said the Swift plant was one of 11 plants a Japanese government team had inspected and approved late last year for beef export to Japan. -- Joe Roybal