By MATT GOURAS/Associated Press Writer
HELENA - Five bulls from a Canadian herd linked to a cow that tested positive for mad cow disease earlier this year were shipped to Montana six years ago and have since been slaughtered, state livestock officials confirmed Wednesday.
However, state and federal officials were quick to note that they do not believe any of the bulls had the disease, noting that other animals linked to the infected cow have so far tested negative.
Karen Cooper, spokeswoman for the Montana Department of Livestock, said none of the bulls showed the clinical signs of mad cow disease at slaughter. What became of the carcasses after that was not clear.
The five bulls all spent time in a herd with the Canadian cow that tested positive, or spent time with that cow's offspring, Cooper said.
Ron DeHaven, spokesman for the U.S. Agriculture Department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, told a news conference Wednesday his agency is still investigating what happened to the bulls.
''If the investigation reveals that the bulls were slaughtered, it was after the FDA feed ban, thus ensuring that the animals didn't enter into the bovine feed chain,'' he said.
This is the first indication that the Canadian investigation into the disease known as BSE, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, has reached into the United States.
No ranches or farms in the United States have been quarantined as a result of the discovery, state and federal officials said.
Two weeks ago, Canadian officials disclosed that a cow in northern Alberta had been identified as having the disease. The United States immediately banned all imports of Canadian beef and cattle.
Since then, Canada has ordered the slaughter of more than 1,700 cattle in its effort to track down the source of the disease. So far, 800 animals have tested negative.
Agricultural authorities said Wednesday some of the bullsfrom Alberta apparently were subsequently resold in South Dakota and Montana.
DeHaven said they are still in the ''initial stages'' of the investigation, and are tracking the animals using brand inspection reports and interviews with the Montana rancher who bought the bulls.
U.S. officials said the Montana rancher is cooperating with authorities. They did not identify the rancher.
Bill Bullard, chief executive officer of R-CALF United Stockgrowers of America, said the announcement proves that the investigation of the mad cow case is thorough and ''going where it should.'' He said the United States also should keep its border closed to Canadian beef and cattle imports until that investigation is finished.
Lester Crawford of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said the agency doesn't plan to lift the import ban.
''The investigation is ongoing,'' he said. ''At this point, it would just not be appropriate for us to consider lifting restrictions.''
Feed laced with animal tissue for added protein, called ruminant feed, is a way of transmitting mad cow disease. The United States bans the use or importation of ruminant feed.
Mad cow disease was first diagnosed in Britain in 1986. The human form of BSE is the fatal brain-wasting illness variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Scientists believe people get it by eating some meat products from infected animals.
Even though authorities are uncertain what happened to the bulls, or whether they had mad cow, DeHaven said the chance of someone in the United States getting the human variant because of this is ''immeasurably small.''
It also is not possible to spread the disease through breeding, he said.
State cattle industry officials said Wednesday's disclosure did not have them worried.
''There is no need for immediate alarm or concern, because the cow herds that have been tested in Canada have all come back negative,'' said Steve Pilcher, executive secretary for the Montana Stockgrowers' Association.
On the Net:
Canadian Food Inspection Agency: http://www.inspection.gc.ca/