WASHINGTON (AP) – The Agriculture Department said Tuesday its meat recall from the nation’s first case of mad cow disease was nearly four times larger than previously disclosed, but dismissed the size as irrelevant.

The government said the recall grew to 38,000 pounds from the 10,400 it announced Dec. 23, when the government reported that a slaughtered Holstein cow in Washington state had tested positive for the brain-wasting disease.

Officials had originally set the recall at 10,400 pounds after determining that Vern’s Moses Lake Meats in Moses Lake, Wash., had mingled meat from the infected cow with meat from 19 other head of cattle on Dec. 9.

Vern’s then shipped the entire amount, 10,400 pounds, to a deboning processor in Centralia, Wash. From there, the meat was sent to two processors in Oregon, where it was mixed with other meat to create 38,000 pounds of hamburger.

The ground beef was then shipped to wholesalers and retailers in six western states. From slaughter to supermarkets and restaurants, about 580 businesses handled the meat, Agriculture Department officials said.

The department posted the higher recall number on its Web site Feb. 9, but did not call attention to it because it was focused on finding out what happened to the beef, officials said. The Seattle Times reported the increase Tuesday.

“The total poundage is irrelevant,” said Steve Cohen, a spokesman for the department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. “The relevance is how quickly the product was tracked, how diligent was the tracking and recovering what was recoverable.”

The department said it does not know what happened to about 17,000 pounds of the recalled meat but said it was probably eaten or thrown out by consumers. The rest was returned for destruction.

The department said the brain and nervous system tissue most likely to carry the misshapen protein that causes bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, had been removed on the day of slaughter. Any meat products from the infected cow were not expected to carry the misshapen protein, officials said.

Eating meat containing BSE’s infectious protein can give humans a similarly rare but fatal disease, variant Creutzfeld-Jakob disease. More than 150 people have died from the disease in Europe, but no case of it has been linked to U.S. beef.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group, said the department’s decision not to publicize expanding the recall raises questions about its reliability.

The Agriculture Department’s initial recall announcements are based on what companies tell it, and it’s in the companies’ interests to keep the number low, said Caroline Smith DeWaal, head of food safety for CSPI. She said Congress should give the department power to order recalls instead of having to ask companies to issue them.

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