PULLMAN, Wash. (AP)--The only bovine spongiform encephalopahty testing laboratory in the Pacific Northwest will close March 1, just over three years after a Yakima Valley dairy cow tested positive for the chronic brain-wasting disease.

The Washington State University lab opened after the nation's first BSE case in December 2003 prompted some new safeguards.

The closure of BSE testing at WSU and several other locations across the country comes after the U.S. Department of Agriculture determined the prevalence of the disease in the nation's cattle herd is "extraordinarily low."

Costly testing and tracking programs aren't necessary, the federal agency said in reducing BSE testing by more than 90 percent. Of 759,000 animals tested--including 45,000 in the Northwest--only two other infected cows were found after the initial BSE scare.

The BSE lab is basically one room inside the Washington State University's Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory, one of seven state laboratories conducting testing for USDA, WSU spokesman Charlie Powell said.

When the USDA contract ends in early March, the high-technology robotic equipment will remain in place and be used for other types of testing, Powell said. One person faces possible layoff as a result of the lab's closure, he said.

Although the USDA promised to tighten its inspection and testing programs after the BSE scare, many programs were not implemented, or are considered voluntary, food safety advocates said.

"There have been some improvements, but USDA stopped short of implementing several important programs that are vital not only to protect against (BSE), but to protect the industry against other diseases," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit consumer-advocacy group.

Still allowed is the use of cow blood as a food supplement for calves. A prohibition on slaughtering sickly "downer" cows for human consumption has not been made permanent, though it is being enforced.

USDA spokeswoman Andrea McNally said the fact that only two additional cases of BSE turned up in the U.S. proves the disease is exceedingly rare. That prompted the agency's decision to scale back the program and target only about 40,000 animals a year.

BSE disease is a chronic, degenerative disease of the brain and spinal cord in cattle. Cattle can get the disease through contaminated meat and bone meal fed to the animal as a protein source.

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