"After the sheep were destroyed, they were not a high priority for testing because the threat was eliminated"

From The New Republic:

The next mad cow?

On the Lamb

by D.T. Max
Post date: 10.09.06
Issue date: 10.16.06

It was meant to be the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) finest hour. On March 23, 2001, the agency’s enforcement agents raided the Mad River Valley, Vermont, sheep farm of an artisanal cheese maker named Linda Faillace. The raid wasn’t unexpected–eight months earlier, the agency had filed a “Declaration of Extraordinary Emergency” that declared its right to seize Faillace’s 125 Beltex and East Friesian sheep. Their crime was that they were part of the only ovine flock, among approximately eight million sheep in this country, to have come directly from Europe, where mad cow disease is thought to have originated–and the USDA suspected them of harboring the disease themselves.

In the wake of the declaration, Faillace, who describes herself as a “member of the underground food revolution,” had insisted her flock was healthy, and she rallied state support. Vermonters do not take kindly to federal intervention, and so, on the day of the raid, protesters blocked the snow-covered driveway to the Faillace farm, hoisting signs that read illegal search and seizure and crimes of the USDA. But they did little to deter the 27 armed federal agents in flak jackets and 13 USDA specialists who slipped and slid in their loafers as, like latter-day Wile E. Coyotes, they carried off the bleating animals. The flock’s destination was Ames, Iowa, the site of the USDA’s central lab, where they would be slaughtered and tested for mad cow disease. Like a scene from Charlotte’s Web, Mary Jo, Linda’s eight-year-old niece, cradled one doomed sheep named Kanga in her arms. “The pain was indescribable,” recounts Faillace. “[These] innocent animals … were not only our livelihood, but … also our beloved companions.”

But the USDA had the broader nation’s sympathy: What was at stake, the press was assured, was nothing less than the safety of the U.S. food supply. Mad cow, more properly called bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), is one of a family of highly infectious, nearly ineradicable diseases that kill by devouring their victims’ brains. Cows get BSE through infected feed, and humans contract it by eating infected cows. At the time of the seizure, BSE in Europe had killed at least 180,000 cows and around 100 people. But one study, ongoing at the time of the Mad River seizure, had successfully transmitted BSE to sheep through feed. This meant that, theoretically, millions of Americans and Europeans could be exposing themselves to a horrible death with every bite of lamb they took.

And, indeed, the initial test results from the Faillace farm seemed to vindicate the USDA. Eleven months after the seizure, in February 2002, the agency announced that two members of the flock tested positive for “an atypical [prion] disease of foreign origin.” Linda Detwiler, the head of the mad cow disease working group for the USDA, commented on television that the condition, in which the sheep’s brains showed the presence of the deformed prion proteins that are a hallmark of the disease, resembled mad cow disease. The sheep, then, had been, at least potentially, a lethal ticking time bomb–the first cases of mad cow disease in the United States and the first confirmed cases of mad cow in sheep in the world. The USDA declared itself satisfied with its intervention in the appositely named Mad River Valley, and President Bush himself praised the action. Detwiler, who had walked through a gauntlet of signs in Vermont with Dr. Deathwiler on them as she led the assault on Kanga, received a departmental “Heroism” award, went on “Good Morning America,” and took a bow. “Let me ask you point-blank: Are you saying that these tests show there is a form of mad cow disease in this country in sheep?” Diane Sawyer asked. “Yes, we are,” Detwiler answered.

But Detwiler’s answer may have been somewhat premature. Prion science is not like viral or bacterial science–results do not come in a day or two. The only way to conclusively figure out what the Vermont sheep harbored was through a bio-assay–tissue from the culled sheep had to be injected into mice, the mice allowed to sicken and die, and then their tissue examined to see if molecular traces of the disease fit any known condition or represented a new one. The process usually takes anywhere from three months to one year. But, soon after the announcement of the “atypical [prion] disease,” the USDA officials let interested parties know that it would likely take much longer. The premier prion disease testing facility in the world, in England, was busy, they said: a comment akin to saying that someone was using the pencil. There were other facilities that could do the work, but the USDA never pursued it. Five years after the raid, the USDA’s finest hour is beginning to look like just another example of the agency’s frightening incompetence.

Linda Faillace never resumed her career as a sheep farmer: The raid ruined her financially, and she and her husband now run a country store dedicated to locally grown foods. But she remained angry about the USDA’s raid and had the good fortune to find a co-defendant with deep pockets–an octogenarian farmer and heir to the AIG fortune named Houghton Freeman, who lived nearby and also had his 200 sheep seized. Freeman was willing to dig into those pockets to fight back against what he also saw as a usurpation of private property.

Faillace and Freeman are now in their fourth lawsuit against the government and have spent around $400,000. “It’s not about money at all,” Faillace says. “It’s about showing sheep don’t get mad cow disease and not wanting this to happen to other people.” She has just published a book called Mad Sheep: The True Story Behind the USDA’s War on a Family Farm, the cover a photo of Martha, the best-loved sheep in the flock, as Faillace saw her for the last time: through the bars of the USDA trailer. The book does an excellent job of pointing out that the USDA’s case, which, in 2001, seemed pretty good, by now seems extraordinarily weak.

One of the spurs for the USDA’s raid may have been the criticism it was getting in the wake of the mad cow epidemic in Europe. At the time, the United States had not yet recorded a single case of mad cow disease. The USDA believed that was because of the excellent oversight the agency provided the nation’s approximately $60-billion beef industry. But others weren’t so sure. Skeptics–including many at public health agencies like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)–noted that perhaps the reason the USDA hadn’t found mad cow in the United States was that it wasn’t looking. Whereas the United States tested one in every 18,000 cows for the presence of BSE, European countries tested vastly more. Besides protecting the nation’s food supply, the USDA’s second task is to protect the meat industry’s markets at home and abroad–four former beef lobbyists were among the top appointees at the USDA–and skeptics hinted that perhaps the noteworthy absence of zeal was connected to this fact.

So, in the snowy fields of Vermont, the USDA picked a fight it could not lose. The p.r. risk seemed low and the offense to the beef industry negligible: In the ag world, beef trumps lamb, lamb trumps cheese, and just about everything trumps a bunch of long-hairs making artisanal cheese in Vermont. To make sure everyone got the message that the USDA was supremely vigilant, the agents even demanded the surrender of the family dog and llama. Kanga and friends were placed aboard the lethal trailer and the USDA agents poured bleach on the tires of the vehicle to remind the folks at home of the extraordinary threat posed by the prion particle (ordinary methods of disinfection don’t harm it; only bleach can kill it). “The truck had never been on the farm. It had only been on the road,” remembers Faillace. “It was a useless gesture.”
The rest of the article is HERE.


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