December 25, 2003 -- CropChoice news --Washington Post: Federal
officials announced the recall yesterday of more than
10,000 pounds of meat that passed through a Washington
state slaughterhouse on the same day as a Holstein cow
infected with mad cow disease.
Fearing that contaminated beef could pose a threat
to their food supply, Canada and Mexico joined several
other countries in halting U.S. imports. The U.S. beef
industry was battered as financial markets predicted
steep drops in demand, with beef prices dropping sharply
along with the stocks of meatpacking companies and restaurant
chains such as McDonald's and Wendy's.
Federal investigators, meanwhile, frantically sought
to track down the infected cow's antecedents. Agriculture
officials said the Holstein was probably infected before
it was purchased by a farm in southern Washington, which
sent it to the slaughterhouse on Dec 9. Because the
disease is transmitted through contaminated cattle feed,
other cows from the birth herd may have eaten the same
feed, widening the circle of risk to animals now widely
dispersed or already in the food supply.
"Potentially other animals at the same age were
fed the same feed," said David Ropeik, director
of risk communication at the Harvard Center for Risk
Analysis, which has studied the potential impact of
mad cow disease in the United States. "There might
be other animals carrying the infected material that
aren't symptomatic yet."
Federal officials issued assurances of public safety
while keeping a nervous eye on the health of the beef
industry, the largest component of U.S. agriculture.
The State Department has cabled all embassies and asked
diplomats to tell foreign governments that the problem
is under control, officials said.
U.S. officials insisted that the nation's beef is safe
because of a safety regimen instituted in 1997, which
protects cattle from infected feed. As part of the same
regimen, the brain and spinal cord of the infected Holstein
were removed at the slaughterhouse and sent to a rendering
But food safety advocates who say the safety ban is
inadequate point out the Holstein cow was infected after
the safety ban took effect. Given that mad cow disease
has about a three-year incubation period, the Holstein
was probably infected around 1999 or 2000, they said.
In an interview yesterday, Tom Ellestad of Vern's Moses
Lake Meats, the slaughterhouse where the Holstein was
killed, said that he distinctly remembered the infected
cow. Contradicting government officials, Ellestad said
the cow was not a "downer" animal -- that
it was able to stand and even walk.
Ellestad said his family has been operating the slaughterhouse
since 1970, and the recall imposed on the 20 carcasses
shipped from the facility on Dec. 9 was the first in
its history. Government officials said the recall was
being implemented to shore up public confidence in the
food supply, not because of any known risks. Agriculture
Secretary Ann M. Veneman said the recall was ordered
out of "an abundance of caution."
Mad cow disease is the popular term for bovine spongiform
encephalopathy, or BSE, a disease caused by a misshapen
protein known as a prion. In humans, prions are associated
with a fatal brain-wasting disorder called variant Creutzfeld-Jakob
disease. Since the 1980s, when the first cases of mad
cow disease were found, 154 people have died, mostly
in Britain, and millions of cows have been slaughtered
to keep the disease from spreading. The only known channel
of infection is through animal feed -- in England the
problem was compounded because the brains of infected
animals were being ground up and fed to other cattle.
The 1997 U.S. ban aims to halt this practice.
This Holstein is the first infected animal to be discovered
in the United States. USDA officials who are handling
the investigation said the Holstein came from a large
dairy farm in southern Washington. The farm has two
premises with more than 4,000 cows, Veneman said. The
USDA declined to identify the facility, but an informed
source said that the Holstein came from the Sunny Dene
Ranch in Mabton.
Officials said farm records showed that the Holstein
was purchased in October 2001 and that it was about
two years old at the time -- making it about four years
old when slaughtered, a revision of an earlier estimate.
Because mad cow disease typically takes at least three
years to incubate, investigators believe the cow became
infected before it was acquired by Sunny Dene Ranch.
"In all likelihood, the animal consumed contaminated
beef in a previous herd than the one it was culled from,"
said Stephen Sundlof, director of the Food and Drug
Administration's Center for Veterinary Medicine. "We
are trying to track down some of this information."
Farm records have narrowed the source of the animal's
birth herd to two other farms. Neither was identified,
but USDA officials said both were in Washington state.
After finding the birth farm, investigators will still
have to track down all the suppliers of feed to that
farm -- and then determine how widely the supply of
contaminated feed might have been distributed. At the
farm where it was acquired, the Holstein cow suffered
complications during its first calving, which resulted
in its being partially paralyzed, USDA officials said.
"It's not uncommon practice for animals that are
no longer economically profitable to send them to slaughter,"
said W. Ron DeHaven, deputy administrator and chief
veterinary officer of the USDA. "Whether this animal
had recovered ambulation before slaughter we don't honestly
The confusion may explain the discrepancy between the
USDA's description of the Holstein as a downer cow and
Ellestad's recollection that the animal was ambulatory.
The issue of whether the animal was a downer is significant
because of a growing controversy over whether such animals
should be part of the food supply. Congress weighed
the question recently and may revisit it soon; a ban
is championed by many food safety advocates.
At the Moses Lake slaughterhouse, USDA inspectors examined
the animal and approved it for slaughter. Kenneth Petersen,
a USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service official,
said that records indicated the animal had shown no
signs of injury or disease other than inflammation and
a hemorrhage in the pelvic canal that was consistent
with the birthing injury. Ellestad said the facility
did not use a technique known as advanced meat recovery,
which some consumer groups say can pull infected tissue
into meat that goes into the food supply.
Routine samples were taken from the Holstein for BSE
analysis, and the results became available 13 days later.
Bryan Dierlam of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association
said the group had recommended a "test and hold"
strategy, in which killed downer animals would not be
sent into the food supply until they were cleared by
the tests. DeHaven said the USDA will consider the idea.
The decisions by several major importers of U.S. beef
to halt imports is hardly surprising -- the United States
imposed bans on Canadian beef imports after a single
case of mad cow disease was discovered in Alberta in
May. Some of those measures are still in place, but
the government is planning to lift them, DeHaven said.
"What's going to happen in the marketplace is
going to hinge on how this investigation turns out,"
said Keith Collins, the USDA's chief economist. U.S.
beef imports have been halted by Mexico, Canada, Japan,
South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia,
Russia and South Africa. Together, they account for
most of the $3.4 billion U.S. export market.
Limited action on U.S. commodity markets yesterday
showed the potential impact for the industry: The market
opened with the price for live cattle having already
fallen as much as it is allowed to fall in a single
day. Trading will resume on Friday, and officials expect
prices to fall again.
Ropeik from Harvard's Center for Risk Analysis said
that the apparent breach that allowed the Holstein to
become infected in 1999 or 2000 was troubling -- and
could be a sign of more widespread problems. But a computer
model analysis had shown, however, that even if there
were 500 infected cows, the disease would not expand,
because sooner or later infected tissue would get picked
up by the feed ban and be diverted from both cattle
feed and human consumption.
"Even with incomplete compliance with the ban,
there is enough compliance so that it basically chokes
itself off," he said.
Harder to measure with computer simulations is the
perception of danger in the food supply. A host of groups
have seized on the mad cow finding to advance a range
of different agendas: On a rainy sidewalk outside the
USDA headquarters in Washington yesterday, for example,
the animal rights group, People for the Ethical Treatment
of Animals, handed out brochures on how to go vegetarian.