USDA Says Two Seized Sheep Were Infected

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(Host) The U.S. Department of Agriculture says two sheep from a Vermont flock have tested positive for a family of illnesses that includes mad cow disease. The test results were released more than a year after federal officials destroyed two flocks of sheep out of concern that the animals were infected with the fatal brain disorder.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) The U.S. Department of Agriculture says scientists still don’t know if the animals had mad cow disease, an illness that has ravaged the British beef industry. More than a year after the sheep were destroyed, the government says brain tissue from two of 99 animals tested showed signs of transmissible spongiform encephalopathy, or TSE. This is a family of illnesses that include a common sheep disease called scrapie, as well as mad cow disease.

Linda Detwiler, a senior USDA veterinarian, says more tests will be done:

(Detwiler) "This test does not differentiate which TSE the sheep have. We do plan on doing further work, probably in conjunction with the labs in Europe, to try to identify which TSE they had."

(Dillon) Scrapie is found all over the world and in the United States. It’s not considered dangerous to people.

But Detwiler says the sheep had to be destroyed because some of them could have been exposed to mad cow disease before they were imported from Europe:

(Detwiler) "Scrapie is not known to be a human health risk. It was a precaution that we took. ¿ As a precaution that’s why the USDA purchased the animals from the farm."

(Dillon) The animals that tested positive came from the farm of Linda and Larry Faillace in Warren. Their 125 sheep and another flock in Greensboro were seized a year ago after a lengthy legal battle. The USDA moved to take the sheep after it determined that four animals from the Greensboro farm had also showed signs of TSE.

The farmers have criticized the USDA. They’ve maintained that their animals were healthy and were never exposed to mad cow disease. The farmers have also questioned why the government took so long to release test results. According to the farmers, the USDA should have been able to say within days if the animals were sick.

Alexis Lathem works for the Rural Vermont farm advocacy group. She says the USDA relied on an unvalidated testing procedure and that the results can’t be trusted:

(Lathem) "We will never be able to know if the USDA results really reflect the truth¿. There are labs in Europe which are state of the art. Those test results are always verified to be right. And they are using those test results by the millions in Europe. Every day before cows go to slaughter, they have to be tested. These are state of art testing methods that are available to USDA. It’s very suspicious that they didn’t use those."

(Dillon) Detwiler from the USDA says the latest tests took so long to conduct because the government had to set up a secure laboratory. The testing will continue on the rest of the sheep:

(Detwiler) "The process really was one of logistics, just to get the agreements in place, the labs set up and the testing facility for the tests to be completed."

(Dillon) The USDA says the farmers have been compensated for their animals. But the government hasn’t decided if it will give the farms samples of their animals’ brain tissue, so they can have the results checked by an independent lab.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon.

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