Mad-cow quarantine grows; herds face slaughter
Seattle Times staff reporters
An intense investigation into the family tree of the nation's first mad-cow case could lead to a quick death for hundreds, and possibly thousands, of Central Washington cows.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) expanded its quarantine of Washington cattle yesterday after tracing the newborn calf of the infected cow to a Sunnyside, Yakima County, ranch. Because the calf didn't have an identifying ear tag, federal protocols call for more than 400 calves under 30 days old to be killed and tested for the disease, said Linda Waring, spokeswoman for the state Department of Agriculture.
A second offspring remains at the same dairy farm that was home to the infected cow, where 4,000 cows are quarantined, said USDA spokeswoman Julie Quick. The USDA has not decided what to do with that herd.
The national beef market began to slump yesterday as 25 countries that account for 90 percent of U.S. beef exports now ban American products, according to the USDA.
A federal investigation is tracing the life of the infected cow before and after it arrived at Sunny Dene Ranch, a dairy farm in Mabton, 40 miles southeast of Yakima. More than 10,000 pounds of beef have been recalled from the Moses Lake slaughterhouse that killed the infected cow Dec. 9.
A backward trace of the cow's life led federal investigators to a Mattawa dairy, where it is believed that Sunny Dene purchased the infected heifer as part of a 100-head lot in 2001. Federal investigators are looking at a less-likely scenario that the infected cow was purchased from a nearby livestock yard.
But tracing the cow back to its birth herd — crucial in determining if other animals were infected by tainted feed — may be more difficult, said Dr. Ron DeHaven, the USDA's chief veterinarian. The agency thinks the birth herd could be in another state, or in Canada, where a mad-cow case was reported in May.
"If we're lucky, we could know something in a day or two," DeHaven said during a conference call yesterday. "But it might not be a matter if days. It might be weeks or months. And, given the lack of records, we might not be able to determine that at all."
Unraveling the life history of the infected animal and its offspring is complicated by the fact that there's no national identification system for U.S. cattle. The USDA has been studying a microchip system that would allow birth-to-death tracking, DeHaven said. But the system, which would be very expensive to implement, is still years away.
USDA officials say they don't know how many cattle may have to be destroyed, but millions were killed in Great Britain during efforts there to quell a massive outbreak.
Yakima County officials, relying on state and federal guidelines for agricultural disasters, have begun forming plans to protect soils and groundwater in case of a significant cow-kill.
"I think this next week, it's not going to be a pretty sight," said Frank Hendrix, the Yakima County extension agent and a cattle owner.
Fatal disease, huge losses
According to the federal Centers for Disease Control, 153 people worldwide have contracted bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). The disease, which is fatal to humans, is contracted by eating meat that contains brain or spinal cord from an infected animal. Among cattle, it is transmitted through infected feed, and testing for the disease requires the cow to be killed.
Although the Canadian case ended up being a single infected cow, protecting consumer confidence in beef came at a huge cost to cattlemen.
Canadian authorities began destroying cows five days after the infected cow was detected, leading to the slaughter of 1,700 cattle and temporary quarantines for 18 farms. Some 1,500 animals were tested, but no other cases of mad-cow disease were found.
The U.S. banned Canadian imports for more than three months, contributing to a $1.4 billion (U.S.) loss for the Canadian beef industry. Canada on Wednesday issued a partial ban on U.S. beef products.
With the investigation into the Mabton cow ongoing, federal authorities declined to estimate a financial toll. But in 2001, the Bush administration told Congress that the beef industry could lose $15 billion if mad cow spread as widely as it did in Great Britain.
Yesterday cattle prices, at a record high last week, dropped the daily market limit of 3 cents a pound, to 87.62 cents per pound for January live cattle. The daily maximum drop will be expanded to 5 cents for Monday, and some analysts predicted that live-cattle prices would plunge about 15 cents more before they stabilize.
Dairy products safe
Although Sunny Dene Ranch is barred from buying or selling cows, the quarantine does not extend to milk; BSE cannot be contracted through dairy products. The farm has continued producing milk for two dairy cooperatives, said Rae Klein, a spokeswoman for the Northwest Dairy Association, one of the cooperatives.
"(BSE) has no impact at all" on dairy products, she said.
But effects already are being felt in the state beef industry, which has annual sales estimated at $621 million. John Top, co-owner of the Toppenish Livestock Commission, said an auction planned Monday was postponed.
"We're not going to have it until some of the smoke clears and we can see what the market demand is," said Top, concerned that consumers will overreact.
Spurred by a European outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease among cattle in 2001, Washington state the following year developed a response plan for keeping animal diseases in check. If large numbers of animals must be destroyed, the plan says the National Guard could be called in to help dig mass graves, transport carcasses to incineration sites and clean and disinfect vehicles and equipment.
Still, Clive Gay, a Washington State University professor of veterinary medicine, said destroying large numbers of cattle would create a "big biological mess."
"There is no easy way of doing it, and there's probably no pleasant way of doing it, from the public perception," Gay said. "No one likes to see funeral pyres, and no one likes to see mass graves."
Jay Gordon, executive director of the Washington State Dairy Federation, said dairy farmers understand that quelling an outbreak may mean destroying animals. "We want to show this world we fully tracked this back, and this is an isolated case," he said.
DeHaven said ranchers have historically been compensated at fair market value for animals destroyed due to a disease outbreak.
Restrictions not in time?
In an effort to stave off a mad-cow outbreak, U.S. authorities banned using animal meat and bone in cattle feed in 1997, the year of Europe's outbreak.
Steve Sundlof, director of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Center for Veterinary Medicine, said yesterday that while Washington state is in nearly full compliance with the feed restrictions, that was not the case four and a half years ago, when the infected Mabton cow was born and likely contracted the disease.
The U.S. has also had cattle-trade restrictions since 1989 with countries considered at high risk for the disease.
Canada, however, was never placed on the restricted list until a mad-cow case was reported there in May, said Quick, the USDA spokeswoman.
Quick said cattle coming across the border were required to be checked for diseases such as brucellosis, a bacterial infection that can cause food poisoning.
But checking for BSE is difficult because it requires a member of the herd to be killed and its brain removed. Also, it can take four to six years for the disease to show up in an infected animal.
Seattle Times staff reporters Sandi Doughton, Kyung Song and Ian Ith, along with The Associated Press, contributed to this report. Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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