Warren family, USDA still dispute sheep test results

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(Host) A Warren family whose sheep were seized by the federal government last year is raising money for a documentary film about their ordeal. The U.S. Department of Agriculture destroyed 125 sheep belonging to Linda and Larry Faillace. The government says two of the animals were infected with a version of mad cow disease. But the Faillaces say the government’s tests were flawed.

VPR’s John Dillon has more.

(Dillon) Linda and Larry Faillace’s three-year battle with the government ended with armed federal marshals hauling away their prized animals. But Linda Faillace says the fight isn’t over yet. She disputes the test results that the government says showed that two of the 125 animals were infected with a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy. The brain diseases are called TSEs and they kill their victims by forming sponge-like holes in the brain.

Faillace says government records show that the first round of tests were all negative. A second batch was also negative. A scientist hired by the Department of Agriculture then used a new procedure. The government says that this new test indicated that two of the animals had some kind of TSE disease. But the tests couldn’t show whether the sheep had mad cow disease, or a far more common sheep illness called scrapie.

Faillace says that final test was seriously flawed, since the tissue at that point was damaged by being in the freezer for months.

(Faillace) “Basically, the tissue was decomposed and had freezer burn so nothing could be concluded from it.”

(Dillon) The U.S. Department of Agriculture paid the family $215,000 for the sheep. The family says their animals and their cheese business were worth a lot more. Linda Faillace says the government has also banned them from using the land for raising sheep for four years for fear of further infection.

(Faillace) “And there’s absolutely no science that would justify that and then they have no test results that would justify that. So we see USDA’s actions as being very vindictive.”

(Dillon) A local filmmaker is working on a one-hour documentary about the Faillaces. The family is trying to raise money to finish the project. They also want to sue the government for damages. But USDA spokesman Ed Curlett says the government action was justified:

(Curlett) “We stand by the results. We announced in April that two from the flock were positive for a TSE. We stand by that.”

(Dillon) Curlett says the government scientists are conducting new tests that will take two to three years to complete. He says the new tests should be able to identify exactly what disease the sheep may have had.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon.

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