Egypt partially suspends Brazil beef imports over mad cow doubts

SAO PAULO Mon Dec 17, 2012 11:45am EST

SAO PAULO Dec 17 (Reuters) - Egypt, the third largest importer of Brazilian beef, banned imports of the meat from the state of Parana, which registered a case of atypical mad-cow disease earlier this month, a newspaper said on Monday.

But the Middle-Eastern country was continuing to import beef from the rest of Brazil without any apparent restrictions, the Valor Economico newspaper said, highlighting the still-limited impact of the case on Brazilian grass-fed beef exports.

The Brazilian Agriculture Ministry said it had yet to receive any official notification of the partial ban on its beef exports to Egypt. The paper said that Egyptian authorities gave only verbal notification to the Brazilian embassy in Cairo.

So far only Japan, China and South Africa have halted imports since Brazil announced on Dec. 7 that a 13-year-old cow that died in 2010 in Parana state tested positive for the protein linked to the development of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow.

These countries are all minor importers of Brazilian beef.

"It's easy to restrict beef imports at this time of year when trade flows slow down," said Mauricio Palma Nogueira, the head of local beef and dairy consultants Bigma. "Most likely, Brazil will see continued growth in annual beef exports."

Russia, Hong Kong and Egypt, which account for more than half of the 896,000 tonnes of beef that Brazil has exported this year through September, continue to import its beef.

The head of Russia's VPSS animal and food safety agency said earlier on Monday it was unlikely to ban all Brazilian beef imports over BSE concerns.

The elderly cow which was kept for breeding purposes never developed BSE and died of other causes. But it tested positive for the disease's causal agent, a protein called a prion, which can arise spontaneously in elderly cattle.

In this condition, which was confirmed by the World Animal Health Organization (OIE), animals are classified as having 'atypical BSE', which may or may not go on to cause the BSE disease, Brazilian agriculture officials said.

A similar case of atypical BSE occurred in the United States in April. Like the Brazilian cow, that animal never entered the food chain and the United States managed to avoid any restrictions on its beef exports.

Brazil's 200-million-head cattle herd is almost entirely pasture-raised until the final few weeks before slaughter, when they are confined and fattened on feeds. It is a very different system of beef production than that which led to the mad-cow disease outbreak in Europe in the 1980s and 1990s, where animals were fed remains of other animals including brain and nervous system tissue sometimes affected by BSE, which spread the disease.

Nervous system tissue is removed and incinerated from Brazilian cattle during processing at meat plants.

"If you look hard enough, you'll find prions in herds anywhere in the world," said Nogueira. "With the OIE keeping Brazil at minimal risk and the cow never having manifested the disease, Brazil will likely follow the course of the United States with little impact on exports."