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As foot-and-mouth disease continues to turn up in livestock herds across England, Ireland, a small corner of France and most recently the Netherlands, the U.S. Agriculture Department has seized a flock of 234 sheep in Vermont fearing some of the animals may have a version of mad-cow disease.

While foot-and-mouth disease seems to be spreading at an unprecedented rate in foreign countries, no sign of the disease has been detected in the United States.

But suspicion of mad-cow disease in the two Vermont sheep flocks is reason for concern, particularly since there never has been a confirmed case of the disease in the United States.

Seizure of the sheep was the first of any cows or sheep in the nation under suspicion of having an illness related to mad-cow disease. No known foot-and-mouth disease has turned up in the United States since 1929, thanks to safeguards against it being brought into this country.

Initial USDA tests did not confirm whether the sheep have a form of mad cow disease. In a move that doesn't make a lot of sense because of the danger of spreading the highly transmissible disease, the animals were being shipped to a USDA lab in Ames, Iowa, for further testing. One can only hope the shipment will be under the strictest of restrictions.

The government said the sheep may have been exposed through contaminated European feed. The sheep are highly unusual and valuable East Friesians being raised for their rich milk, which is used in making exotic cheeses. Owners of the two flocks have been prohibited since last summer from selling the milk since the animals became suspect.

Americans can be assured their beef supplies are safe. The United States has banned imports of beef from 15 countries because of foot-and-mouth disease and is taking extra precautions in an effort to prevent its spread into this country.

But at a time when reports of the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in other countries come out almost daily, it is important for Americans to realize that foot-and-mouth disease and mad-cow disease are in no way related.

They also should remember that foot-and-mouth disease isn't harmful to people and is rarely fatal to animals, whereas the human version of mad-cow disease is terminal.

In Britain and other European countries, mad-cow disease has killed almost 100 people since 1995, and it has virtually wiped out the British beef industry.

For that reason, Americans will anxiously await results of the sheep testing in Iowa.