Mad cow case diagnosed quicker than Vermont sheep

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(Host) Almost three years ago, the federal government seized and destroyed Vermont sheep suspected of having a strain of mad cow disease. The USDA’s determination that there was a problem with the sheep was made after 13 months of careful study. But in the recent mad cow case in Washington state, the government made its determination in a few days.

VPR’s John Dillon reports on the contrast between the cow and sheep cases.

(Dillon) The fields that surround Linda and Larry Faillace’s farmhouse in East Warren are unused and abandoned. Tufts of grass poke through the deep snow. Linda Faillace says it was a far different scene several years ago.

(Faillace) “There would have been sheep everywhere you could see. We had sheep all in these back fields. You can see the fields are overgrown now.”

(Dillon) In March 2001, 27 armed federal agents seized their 125 sheep and took them to a government lab in Iowa for slaughter. The U.S. Department of Agriculture said the Faillace’s sheep and another flock in Greensboro had been exposed to a form of mad cow disease. More than a year after the sheep were taken, the government said two of the Faillaces’ flock tested positive.

Faillace says the sheep were healthy. And she points to what she says are glaring inconsistencies between how the government handled the Vermont case and the recent mad cow case in Washington state.

(Faillace) “It appears that they using science in this case, which is what I think they should be doing. But I really want to see USDA apologize for what they did to us.”

(Dillon) The first difference between the two cases is the lengthy delay for the test results on the Vermont animals. It took just days for the government to show that the Washington Holstein was infected with mad cow disease, compared to 13 months for the Vermont sheep.

Second, the Vermont sheep were all cleared by a test called immunohistochemistry, or IHC. The government calls this test the gold standard for identifying mad cow disease or other transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, called TSEs. The USDA itself uses the IHC to identify TSEs in sheep.

(Faillace) “If the IHC is a gold standard, our sheep are free and clear.”

(Dillon) Also negative were studies that examined brain tissue under the microscope. The test results were released under the Freedom of Information Act. Faillace leafs through the documents at her kitchen table.

(Faillace) “These were the samples that were collected. So then you look at the IHC, because they would do a whole slew of them at a time. Like I say it only takes three hours to do a test – 4677, no diagnosis. So if that was a cow, that would be negative. You would say that’s safe for human consumption, that can go into the food chain.”

(Dillon) Dr. Lisa Ferguson is a senior USDA veterinarian. She says a third test, called a Western Blot, found evidence of TSE in two sheep.

(Ferguson) “The Western Blot results were reviewed by many people and there was something there.”

(Dillon) But the lab report on the Western Blot test says the positive results could be explained by changes in the tissue samples themselves. Faillace – who has a background in animal science – says that happens when samples are old and begin to decay.

Doctor Ferguson stands by the results, and says the federal seizure was justified based on the western blot test alone. She says the year-long delay occurred because a private lab handling the test was being renovated.

(Ferguson) “We took the action that we did, and we still feel confident that it was the correct action to take.”

(Dillon) But John Stauber, who wrote a 1997 book on mad cow disease, is skeptical. He says that despite numerous problems in its mad cow disease program, the government used the Vermont case to show it was getting tough.

(Stauber) “I think it was a mostly a matter of public relations. The USDA decided they would swoop in, get rid of those sheep and proclaim to the world that they were on top of keeping mad cow disease out of the United States.”

(Dillon) Ferguson of the USDA says the government still has not concluded whether the Vermont animals had mad cow disease or a version of scrapie, a common sheep disease that widespread around the country. She says further tests are underway to identify the exact strain of the disease.

In the meantime, the government imposed a quarantine on the Faillace’s land that prevents them from raising animals here for at least five years.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in East Warren.

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