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Tuesday, January 06, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

450 calves to be killed as mad-cow precaution

By Sandi Doughton
Seattle Times staff reporter

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A herd of 450 calves at a Sunnyside feedlot will be the first animals destroyed in response to the single case of mad-cow disease discovered in Central Washington late last month.

The killing will begin this week, with the exact schedule dependent on the winter storm sweeping across the state, said Ron DeHaven, chief veterinarian for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

The agency is still searching for a place to dispose of the carcasses, though the most likely option appears to be a 900-acre landfill in the town of Roosevelt on the Columbia River in Klickitat County.

"None of the animals will go into the human food chain, nor will any (material) from those animals go into a rendered product," DeHaven said.

The herd, which includes animals ranging in age from a few weeks to several months, is being destroyed because it includes a male calf born to the infected cow shortly before she was slaughtered Dec. 9. The calf did not have an ear tag, so he can't be singled out. Most experts believe the disease is not passed from mother to offspring, but they can't rule out the possibility.

USDA investigators had marked only about 300 of the calves for death, because they were approximately the same age as the targeted bull calf. But the Yakima County feedlot owner asked the government to buy and destroy the entire herd, rather than leave him with unsaleable animals, stigmatized by their association with the nation's first mad-cow infection, USDA spokesman Nolan Lemon said.

USDA will pay "fair market value" for the animals, likely about $45,000 total, or $100 a head, said Jay Gordon, executive director of the Washington State Dairy Federation.

The calves will be trucked to a nearby slaughterhouse, which is not being used now. The youngest animals will be killed by lethal injection. The older animals will be sedated, then killed by firing a bolt into their heads, USDA spokesman Jim Rogers said.

USDA also is making plans to kill at least some — and possibly all — of the approximately 4,000 cows on the dairy farm in Mabton, Yakima County, where the infected cow was discovered.

Canada's discovery of a single cow infected with mad-cow disease in May led to the destruction of 2,700 head of cattle, including animals from all the herds the sick cow had been in contact with throughout its life, said Cornelius Kiley, of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

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USDA decided to destroy the Sunnyside calves first because they were being raised specifically for meat, Rogers said. "Because the other herd is a dairy herd, where the animals are not slated to be utilized for food, it can hold off — but it's not going to be a long time."

Officials have stressed that the milk from infected cows is still safe.

Finding a place and method to dispose of the carcasses has proved difficult.

"They've been doing a lot of looking," said Kip Eagles, of the Washington Department of Ecology (DOE).

Over the past week, DOE has compiled a list of eight possible options: five landfills and three incinerators.

DeHaven said he's ruled out incineration, at least for disposal of the calves, because they pose virtually no threat of mad-cow contamination.

In the unlikely event the calf picked up the disease from his mother, the infection doesn't reach detectable levels until animals are more than 2 years old, he said.

"Even if the calf is infected, there would be no infectious agent at this point ... so no reason to go to extreme measures," like incineration.

And because the disease doesn't show up in young animals, USDA doesn't plan to test the slaughtered calves for mad-cow infection, DeHaven added.

People can pick up a human version of the disease by eating the brain and other nervous-system tissue from infected animals.

In England, where millions of cows were destroyed during a mad-cow epidemic that started in the late 1980s, the backlog of carcasses overwhelmed incinerators and rendering plants. In some cases, animals were simply burned in pyres or buried in mass graves, both of which created environmental messes.

DOE narrowed its search to landfills equipped with state-of-the-art liner systems, to keep any contamination from leaching into groundwater or soil. The final list includes facilities in Okanogan County, Wenatchee, Stevens County and Asotin County. But none of those landfills accept waste from other parts of the state.

That leaves Rabanco's Roosevelt Regional Landfill as a likely candidate.

Rabanco's regional manager Matt Henry wouldn't say whether he's discussed the possibility with USDA, but he did say the facility could handle the job.

Yesterday, USDA also updated the status of its recall of 10,400 pounds of meat from the infected cow and 19 other animals slaughtered on the same day at the same Moses Lake slaughterhouse. The meat has been tracked to more than 500 retail stores, restaurants and ethnic markets in Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Idaho and Montana.

USDA investigators contacted the owners of every establishment, notifying them of the recall and asking them to alert their customers, said USDA spokesman Steven Cohen.

Eighty percent of the meat was distributed in Washington and Oregon. Earlier reports that some of the meat had reached Alaska, Hawaii and Guam were incorrect.

Officials say the meat poses a minuscule health risk, because the brain and other tissues where the infection concentrates were removed from the infected cow before the meat was processed.

Seattle Times staff reporter Ray Rivera contributed to this report. Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or sdoughton@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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