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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — A federal decision to find and slaughter U.S. cattle imported from Britain is a good precaution, even though the cows pose little threat to human health, a University of Tennessee researcher said Tuesday.

Dr. Melissa Kennedy, a virologist at UT’s College of Veterinary Medicine, said the action helps prevent the false perception of a health risk in the public’s eyes.

“I think they (federal officials) should err on the side of caution in cases like this because of the potential, though small, for public health risk and also because of the economic threat to the beef industry,” Kennedy said.

“If there is a scare, and consumers believe it is not safe, then it might as well not be safe, because they won’t eat it.”

The United States banned imports of British cattle in 1989. The Chicago Sun-Times reported Monday that the USDA had tracked 499 head of cattle imported before the ban and embarked on killing all of them.

Three of the cattle were traced to Tennessee, but state agriculture officials say the owners in Dickson and Shelbyville decided to kill the animals July 10.

Consumers were alarmed by reports that some people stricken with a rare, fatal brain ailment in Britain may have become ill by eating infected beef, but no link has been found, and no case of the disease has been found in the United States.

Kennedy said difficulty in detecting the disease helped create the public scare.

“Mad Cow disease is such an enigma,” Kennedy said. “It’s not a normal infectious agent. It’s neither virus nor a bacteria. It’s not something that we have routine diagnostics available for, so there’s no way to screen animals before they’re slaughtered to rule out the disease.

“But its prevalence is very rare. So (the USDA action) is good as much for perception as for public health, just to ensure that there is no doubt on anyone’s part about the safety of beef in this country.”

Contact: Dr. Melissa Kennedy (423-974-5643)