Brazil is launching a diplomatic offensive to defend its huge beef industry and clarify details of an 'atypical case' of mad cow disease that prompted its top customer, Russia, to consider import restrictions after Japan suspended purchases altogether.
The 13-year-old cow kept for breeding purposes died of other causes in 2010 and never developed the disease, technically known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). 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 last week after tests 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 say.
"The government as a whole is mobilized to give ample clarification over what happened, so that no doubts linger with regard to the safety of our animal health system," said Jose Carlos Vaz, the Agriculture Ministry's No. 2 official.
The outbreak of mad cow disease in Europe, North America and Japan over the past decade often prompted beef importers to embargo shipments and caused temporary chaos in the industry. Brazil is the world's largest beef exporter.
In April, the United States reported a case of atypical BSE in an animal which never entered the food chain, but the country escaped a backlash from importers.
Brazilian diplomats were in contact with Japanese officials in the hope of reverting their decision to suspend imports of its beef, which amounted to just 1,435 metric tons (1582.8 tons), or 0.3 percent, of that country's imports in 2011.
Japan's suspension would hardly make a dent in Brazil's total exports, which reached 896,670 metric tons of beef through September.
The larger risk that looms is of other nations following suit.
A Russian official at the country's animal and plant health watchdog Rosselkhoznadzor told Reuters late on Monday it was "considering" imposing restrictions on imports of Brazilian beef which amounted to 212,456 metric tons through September and were worth $907 million, according to Brazil's beef exporters association Abiec.
"Russia is checking the situation and, if information shows that supplies from other Brazilian states are safe, import will continue," the source added, without offering further details. The cow that died was reared in the southern state of Parana.
The World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) maintains Brazil's status of having an "insignificant risk" of BSE, Brazilian officials said, adding that Brazil would pursue legal action if necessary against any importer trying to exploit BSE claims to block imports of Brazilian beef.