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Is mad cow making its way into our beef?

"Today" food editor Phil Lempert shares his thoughts on U.S. beef regulations and what consumers can do to protect themselves.

Japanese officials have confirmed that their Ministry of Agriculture has identified that nation's 28th case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), better known as mad cow disease. And it should be a wake up call for U.S. consumers as well as our leaders in Washington.

This time the disease was found in a 68-month-old Holstein dairy cow on the northern island of Hokkaido. The government said that the infected animal's meat and intestines will be destroyed, with no chance that it will enter the food supply.

Now, for those of us in the U.S. concerned about the spread of mad cow disease and its human variant, this may not seem like such a big deal. After all, the United States doesn't import much beef from Japan.

But that's not the reason for us not to be worried. In fact, the reason we don't need to be worried is because Japan's national policy is for every cow to be tested — which explains how the government has found 28 cases to this point, and probably will find more. And underscores what I have been saying since I first appeared on the now famous "Oprah" show where Howard Lyman first revealed to the American shopper the realities of mad cow.

It goes without saying that I am not as confident about U.S. beef as I am about beef from Japan. Here the government tests about one percent of the cattle population. And, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has gone on record as saying that, based on its studies and surveillance, it believes that there are, at maximum, a total of between four and seven BSE cases in the U.S., and that a reduction in surveillance seems entirely appropriate.

We would disagree. Japan tests every cow, and has so far found 28 cases of BSE. The U.S. tests one percent of its cattle, and we have fewer than 10 cases. The math just doesn't add up.

Meanwhile, the possibility for mistakes that can have significant consequences is made obvious by the fact that the USDA has to this point been unable to get Japan to open its borders to U.S. beef imports. Why? Those borders were closed when the first case of mad cow was found in the U.S. in December 2003, and then reopened late last year, only to be closed again early this year when beef containing spinal matter — specifically banned by the agreement reopening the border — was found in a Japan-bound shipment.

Even when the rules were strict and clear, mistakes were made. In the environment created by the USDA, where oversight seems vague and may get vaguer, it seems even more likely that more problems will erupt. And the primary victims will be consumers.

So what can we do? Best chance for beef lovers is to consume either grass fed or Certified Organic beef until Washington wakes up and decides its time to protect our food supply just a little better.

Phil Lempert is food editor of the “Today” show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent to phil.lempert@nbc.com or by using the mail box below. For more about the latest trends on the supermarket shelves, visit Phil’s Web site at .