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Monday, December 29, 2003 - Page updated at 04:33 P.M.

Dairy identified as source of cow with suspected mad-cow disease

By Sandi Doughton, Jonathan Martin and Ray Rivera
Seattle Times staff reporters

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The dairy cow tentatively diagnosed with mad cow disease is a four-year-old Holstein from Sunny Dene Ranch in Mabton.

The ranch owner, veterinarian Bill Wavrin, declined to comment today, but referred questions to Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine's Charlie Powell, who confirmed the U.S. Department of Agriculture had gathered records from the ranch regarding the cow.

"Dr. Wavrin is held in very high regard here because he runs a very professional dairy, and he has an exemplary records-keeping system," said Powell, who spoke to Waverin this morning. "Really, what it looks like at this point is something bad happening to a very good person."

Should further testing confirm an earlier test, it is possible that all 4,000 head of cattle at Sunny Dene Ranch could be euthanized and tested for mad cow disease, according to state protocols.

The cow was purchased in October 2001, likely from sale yards in Central Washington, according to Bill Brookreson, deputy director of the state agriculture department. It was sent to Vern's Moses Lake Meat Co., in Moses Lake, for slaughter, where it was classified as a "downer" cow because it was unable to walk after complications from an earlier pregnancy, Brookreson said.

Tom Ellestad, co-owner of Vern's, told the Columbia Basin Herald that the federal process set up to detect mad cow disease worked well. "We have done nothing wrong," he said. "The inspection system works because we caught this cow."

After a sample of nerve tissue was extracted from the cow for testing, the animal's brain and spinal cord were sent to a rendering plant in Spokane. That tissue was processed, but had not left the rendering plant, said Ray Kelly, executive vice president of Baker Commodities, Inc., which owns the facility.

He said the company was working with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and had voluntarily ceased shipments of rendered material, which is turned into high-protein meal for poultry feed, or into tallow.

"We have records of all movements of the sale product, and it is fully contained," said Kelly. "We have no doubt about that."

At the Mabton dairy farm, there was no sign of a quarantine imposed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "(Wavrin) was obviously thinking about this as both a veterinarian and a businessman," said Powell, who spoke to Wavrin this morning. "I sense quite a deal of concern for his family business and what this will mean for the industry."

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman said today that the risk of contracting the brain-wasting disease is minuscule.

"Despite the finding, we remain confident in the safety of our food supply," Veneman said. "I do not hesitate to recommend to anyone that beef is absolutely safe to eat."

But the news, which hit as many Americans were shopping for their Christmas roasts, could prove devastating to the nation's $175 billion beef industry.

The sickly animal was slaughtered Dec. 9, and the meat was processed at three plants in Centralia and in Portland and Clackamas, Ore. State and federal officials have quarantined the farm near the town of Mabton and are scrambling to trace the beef, which was most likely ground into hamburger.

It's possible the meat has already been consumed, said Brookreson, Washington's deputy agriculture chief.

But even if it has, officials say there's very little chance anyone has would have contracted the disease because the cow's brain, spinal cord and other organs where the infection concentrates were removed at the slaughterhouse.

"We believe the likelihood of it moving in the food chain is very, very, very small," Brookreson said, adding that he intended to take his grandchildren for a burger later.

Reuters News Agency reported that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will recall any of the beef that remains on the market as soon as it's located - a process that will require records inspections at all of the facilities where the meat was handled.

State and federal officials both refused to speculate about the economic impact of the discovery, though Japan, South Korea, Australia, Thailand, Taiwan, Malaysia and Singapore quickly announced they will halt beef imports from the United States. The news sent beef-related stocks reeling in Japan, where markets were still open when the news broke. Shares of McDonald's Japanese operations fell 2.7 percent.

American cattle industry leaders attempted to soften the blow, asserting that beef on the market now is free of mad cow contamination and that there's no evidence of widespread infection in cows. "While this one case is unfortunate, systems have been built over the past 15 years to prevent the disease from spreading and affecting either animal health or public health," said Terry Stokes, chief executive officer of the National Cattleman's Beef Association.

Other industry insiders conceded that there will be international fallout, and that beef prices are likely to fall.

Yakima County extension agent agency Frank Hendrix, who works with local ranchers and farmers, predicted a "huge" impact on the county's $200-million-a-year beef industry, as consumers turn away from beef.

When the disease was discovered in a single cow in Alberta, Canada, in May, the U.S. and 28 other nations natoins banned imports of Canadian beef, pushing that nation's cattle industry to the brink of collapse.

Officially known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, mad cow disease first surfaced in England in 1986. It destroys destorys the brain, causing the animal to stumble and behave erratically - hence the common name for the condition.

As the disease spread through Europe and Asia, millions of animals were ordered destroyed and beef imports from affected nations were banned around the world.

Humans can pick up the disease by eating the brain or central nervous system tissue from infected animals. In England, experts suspect the disease spread to humans through butchering techniques that contaminated hamburger and other cuts of meat with fragments of spinal cord.

About 150 people have died of the condition worldwide, most of them in England. Only one human case has been reported in the United States, a British woman living in Florida who was apparently infected in England. The disease robs victims of their ability to think, leaving them bed-ridden and helpless.

The diseased Washington cow was discovered through a routine USDA screening program in place since 1990. The program targets "downer" animals - those that are too sick or injured to walk. The cow was slaughtered and samples of its brain and spinal cord sent to the USDA's lab in Iowa. Two separate tests were positive for mad cow, Veneman said. Tissue samples are being flown to England for confirmatory tests, but officials said they are "very confident" about the positive result.

There's no way of knowing yet how the Mabton cow contracted the disease, Veneman said. Experts believe mad-cow spread widely in England because farmers there commonly gave their cattle feed made from the carcasses of sheep infected with a similar disease. In 1997, the FDA banned the use of meat and bone meal in cattle feed. But the cattle industry tacitly acknowledges that the ban is not altogether effective, and some cattle associations remind their members to not buy from companies that don't comply with the rules.

The investigation will focus on the animal's feed supply, since the disease doesn't appear to spread from cow to cow, Brookreson said.

Investigators will also attempt to find out what happened to the infected brain and spinal cord, which were sent to a rendering plant after the test samples were taken.

Rendering plants cook down otherwise unusable animal parts and carcasses, producing a product called tallow, which is used in soap and some kinds of animal feed. There's virtually no chance anything would make its way into the human food chain, said a USDA spokeswoman.

Tracing the source of the infection could likely prove impossible, said John Stauber, co-author of "Mad Cow USA," a book critical of the beef industry and U.S. procedures for tracking animals and feed.

You have to ask, 'What has this cow been eating all of its life, what other cows have been eating the same thing, and where are they now?'" he said. Feeds move freely across the U.S.-Canada border, and until the Canadian case was confirmed, cows were also shipped between the two nations, he said.

Researchers at Harvard University who conducted a major study on the risk that mad-cow disease would spread in this country said yesterday that the danger to humans and animals from one cow is extremely low.

"It's not zero," said David Ropeik, director of risk communication at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis. "But it's as close to zero as you can get."

The Harvard study, funded by the USDA Department of Agriculture in 1998, concluded that even if dozens of sick animals were discovered in this country, the chance of the disease turning into an epidemic is would be very low.

Eventually, Harvard's Ropeik said, the disease, which is not very contagious, "chokes itself off and dies off."

Critics say the USDA should not allow any meat from "downer" cows into the food chain, because they are at the highest risk for mad-cow infection. Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y., sponsored an unsuccessful bill in the House this year that would have banned processing of any "downed" animals. A similar bill passed the Senate.

Only about 10 percent of "downer" animals are tested for mad-cow infection, said Wayne Pacelle of the Humane Society of the United States, an animal-welfare organization.

"We have been warning for years that downed animals represent the greatest threat of spreading mad-cow disease in the United States," he said.

USDA spokeswoman Julie Quick said some "downer" animals are unable to walk because they have broken legs and other injuries, but their meat is still safe to eat.

She also said the USDA does not require slaughterhouses to hold the meat of animals tested for mad-cow disease until the results come back, because removal of the brain and spinal cord virtually eliminates any risk to people who eat the meat.

But some recent studies show that prions, the infectious agents believed responsible for mad-cow disease, are present in muscle tissue of infected mice, suggesting that muscle meat may not be completely free from risk.

While some Seattle residents were alarmed at the news, others were more sanguine.

Larry Roberts, who manages a Thriftway in Renton, said the store received six calls from customers within 15 minutes of the USDA announcement.

At Village Market Thriftway in Mountlake Terrace, meat manager Ron Kuhlman stacked printouts of news reports on the counter for customers to read. He said he was confident none of his beef was contaminated.

Alexandra Schatz, who moved to the U.S. from Europe a year ago, said she stopped eating beef at fast-food restaurants after the disease broke out in England and France.

"I thought that one of the good things about living here was that I could eat as much beef as I wanted to," Schatz said, shopping for tenderloin tenderlion steak at the West Seattle Thriftway. She said the scare would now stop her from eating burger meat here, which is more susceptible to contamination because it often contains meat from several sources.

Renee Estrada has no such qualms.

"I don't think eating meat's safe sometimes, but we're really, really hungry and we hope nothing happens to us," she said, munching on a Deluxe burger at the Dick's Drive-In on Capitol Hill. "Wanna bite?"

Andy Werkhoven, who operates a Snohomish County dairy farm with about 650 head of cattle, said he's more afraid for his bottom line than his cattle. "The fear of this affecting my cattle is zero," he said. But the public scare is likely to cause beef prices to plummet.

"I think this is really a rare circumstance - like in Canada where only one case was found," added Dale Reiner, a beef-cattle farmer who is also vice president of the Snohomish County Cattlemen. "I'm confident the USDA will do a thorough job investigating this, and that will be a good thing in the end."

Seattle Times staff reporters Susan Kelleher, Judith Blake, Sanjay Bhatt, Drew DeSilver, David Heath, Jake Batsell, Steve Miletich, J. Martin McOmber, Emily Heffter, Christopher Schwarzen, Michael Ko, J. Patrick Coolican and Craig Welch contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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