The United States imported more than 200,000 pounds of beef last year from countries that are not allowed to sell their meat products here because of their association with mad cow disease, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture figures. Dale Leuck, a member of the USDA?s Economic Research Service, says they can?t tell if the figures represent true imports or are simply due to miscoding by Customs officials. ?I think we?d prefer not to take them at face value,? he says. ?We don?t know for sure if it is really beef.?

Records indicate that we imported 2,156 pounds of ?meat and edible meat offal? from Britain and 970 pounds from Spain. Offal contains brain tissue and poses the greatest risk of infecting humans with mad cow, which is also called bovine spongiform encephalopathy or BSE. The Netherlands exported 349,000 pounds of meat products under the category ?Mixtures of Pork and Beef, Prepared or Preserved? to the U.S., even though beef imports are banned from there.

In addition to Britain, Spain and the Netherlands, countries that are banned from importing meat to the U.S. include France, Germany, Austria, Poland, Switzerland, Italy and Croatia. Representatives of R-CALF, a Montana-based cattleman?s lobbying group, have called for a full investigation of the imported banned products. ?If this is anywhere near accurate, we?re taking an enormous risk,? says R-CALF vice president Kathleen Kelley, a rancher from Meeker, Minnesota.

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A terrorist could pour a test tube containing the foot-and-mouth virus into a single feedlot and severely harm the entire U.S. cattle industry, according to Gary Smith, a meat science professor at Colorado State University. ?It is the one everyone is the most frightened of,? he says.

While a small amount of the foot-and-mouth virus could spread quickly, it?s difficult to obtain. ?Getting access to the virus is going to be a huge problem. We are not allowed to keep it in the United States,? Smith says. The U.S. has been free of the disease since the late 1920s.

?Our greatest fear in Colorado is if it got into our wildlife,? Smith says. ?We could probably control it if it was just in our domestic animals, but if we were to get it in our deer and elk, good grief, then we would have it in everything.?

The cattle industry has been on high alert since September 11. Visitors are restricted and feedlot crews try to be aware of suspicious vehicles. Smith thinks rancers should set up surveillance cameras and says, ?If I owned a feedlot, I would be darned careful who I let go there.?

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