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A farm ministry panel has concluded that the outbreak of mad cow disease in Japan was probably caused by cattle feed made from imported British cows or feed made in Italy in the 1980s, ministry sources said Sunday.

The Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry panel believes 14 cows imported in 1982 and 1987 from Britain, where an outbreak of the brain-wasting bovine spongiform encephalopathy had occurred, or cattle feed imported from Italy may have caused mad cow disease in Japan in 2001.

But the sources said the panel was unable to determine the specific infection route. It will compile a final report Tuesday and submit it to the ministry.

The 14 cows from Britain are believed to have been eventually processed into meat-and-bone meal in Japan, while the feed imported from Italy had apparently not been heat-processed, according to the sources.

The panel concluded that domestic cows were infected by eating the feed made of the imported cattle or the Italian feed, believed to have been contaminated with abnormal prions — protein particles lacking nucleic acid that have been linked to nervous system illnesses such as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

The sources said the Japanese cows that were given the tainted feed were eventually made into feed themselves, which was likely to have caused the secondary infections that came to light in 2001.

Mad cow disease is believed to be caused by the consumption of meat-and-bone meal contaminated with abnormal prions. The meal feed is often used as feed for pigs and chickens.

Japan’s first known case of mad cow disease was confirmed in September 2001 in Chiba Prefecture. Through January this year, authorities have confirmed seven cases.

The seven cows were born in 1995 and 1996, making it likely their cases were secondary infections.

Investigations so far have shown that none of the seven infected cows had been fed meat-and-bone meal. However, their feed had been made on the same production lines at five factories in Hokkaido, Gunma and Ibaraki prefectures that are used to make meat-and-bone meal for pigs and chicken.

The panel suspects that infected materials in the feed were mixed into the feed for cows because the lines were not properly cleaned between production runs, the sources said.

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