WA Mad Cow's 'Downer'
Status Now In Doubt
By Peter Sleeth and Andy Dworkin
The Oregonian

"She did walk off the trailer at our place. You got a definition (problem) with the USDA and the veterinarian. They certainly want to call it a downer."
Three Witnesses To The Processing Of The Holstein That Tested Positive For Mad Cow Disease Disagree With Federal Accounts
MOSES LAKE, Wash. -- In the days after the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that mad cow disease had been discovered in a Holstein in Washington, officials insisted that the cow was a "downer" -- unable to walk.
The government's most significant subsequent step to prevent spread of the disease -- a Dec. 30 ban on processing "downer" cows for food -- stemmed from that finding.
Now, three people have come forward to assert that the cow was not a downer. While their stories vary on what happened Dec. 9 at Vern's Moses Lake Meats, their accounts agree on a key point: The cow was able to walk on its own.
The distinction on whether the cow could stand is significant. The department's search for mad cow disease has focussed on downed cattle or those with obvious signs of neurological damage. The suggestion that the diseased Washington Holstein had neither problem raises the possibility that detection of that cow's disease may have been a stroke of luck.
Department officials said Thursday that their records show the cow had been tested because it was a downer. The slaughterhouse was participating in a program to spur increased testing of such livestock. Last year, about 10 percent of downed cows at slaughterhouses were tested.
On Thursday, the department provided The Oregonian copies of the federal veterinarian's notes from Dec. 9, showing the cow was not standing up. Those notes said it was alert and laying down on its sternum in a normal manner. USDA officials have said consistently it was not able to walk.
Yet, three people who were at Vern's Moses Lake Meats on the day the cow was killed told The Oregonian the cow was a "walker." Those men include the plant manager, a former employee and a man who was present when the cow was delivered to the site. The third man asked not to be identified.
The plant manager, Tom Ellestad, repeatedly has said the cow could walk.
"She did walk off the trailer at our place," he said Tuesday. "You got a definition (problem) with the USDA and the veterinarian. They certainly want to call it a downer."
Ellestad declined to comment further.
Employee laid off
Another man, Dave Louthan, worked at Vern's until Jan. 5, when he said he was laid off because of declining business at the slaughterhouse. Ellestad said Louthan was "sort of a disgruntled (ex)-employee," but Ellestad neither would confirm nor deny Louthan's account of what happened on Dec. 9 at the slaughterhouse.
Louthan said the animal was standing up and able to walk when it arrived in the afternoon on a truck loaded with cattle. The load was the second of the day at the family-owned facility, he said.
When it came time to unload the cow, the animal became scared as it approached the loading ramp, Louthan said. To prevent the cow from trampling other cows that were laying down in the trailer, he killed it, he said.
"If I hadn't shot it, it would have been walked to a holding pen and held" for slaughter at a later time, he said.
A walking cow then would be processed without taking a brain sample for mad cow disease, Louthan said. Only downer cows that did not walk to the "kill box" of the slaughterhouse were tested at Vern's Meats.
Because the cow was dead and hoisted into the plant, a brain sample was taken, Louthan said.
Cow gave birth The third man said the cow had been injured giving birth to a calf but was otherwise healthy.
"She... was more than capable of walking off," he said.
Federal officials on Thursday said they could offer no explanation for the differing accounts of the cow's condition or mobility.
"The veterinarian's records do not reflect it as anything other than a downer when he saw it," Dr. Kenneth Petersen said.
The Agriculture Department declined to make available for an interview with The Oregonian the veterinarian who took the notes on Dec. 9 at the slaughterhouse.
After the cow was slaughtered, a sample from its brain was sent to a laboratory for testing while its meat was processed at two Oregon facilities before being sold to stores in Oregon and elsewhere in the West.
On Dec. 23, the agency announced it had a positive laboratory test for mad cow disease on the animal.
On Dec. 30, Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman banned "all downer cattle from the human food chain" and said slaughterhouses could not process such animals. Many animal-rights and consumer groups had sought such a rule for years.
"Additional safeguards" Veneman called the downer ban, and several other meat regulations she unveiled, "additional safeguards to protect the public health, and maintain the confidence of consumers, industry and our trading partners" in the safety of U.S. beef.
Agriculture officials offer a simple definition of "downer": a cow that cannot walk. But the dispute over the condition of the Washington cow suggests that people in the industry can disagree over when, exactly, a cow is down and should be taken out of the food chain.
The Agriculture Department's decision to ban downers from food creates a problem for the agency's mad cow screening program, which tries to get most of its samples from among the pool of downer cattle sent for slaughter. Department officials say they are trying to create a system to keep sampling downers, for instance, by working with veterinarians on farms or with rendering firms, which process carcasses into protein and fats. At the same time, the department says it wants to increase the number of brain samples it tests, to at least 38,000 this fiscal year, an increase from the more than 20,000 the department says it tested in fiscal 2003.
In either case, the program tests only a minority of downer cattle: In each of the past several years, the department estimates about 200,000 downers have been among the roughly 35 million cattle slaughtered.
Both before and after Veneman's announcement, cattle that could walk and seemed free of neurological diseases were unlikely to be tested for mad cow disease.
Paying for samples In October, the department started paying Vern's a fee for every brain sample the slaughterhouse took from cattle targeted for testing, such as downers. Louthan said that meant the slaughterhouse happily cooperated in the program.
The agency started that program as "an incentive for people to cooperate with us and provide samples," said Nolan Lemon, a department spokesman. Plant employees take and hold brain samples for department veterinarians to pick up on occasional visits to the plant. The program helps the effort to get more samples for testing, Lemon added.
Jim Rogers, another spokesman, said having employees select cattle for sampling is less common than having the department's veterinarians make the pick. But he said slaughterhouse employees do sometimes select the cattle to sample, especially at plants that deal with a lot of downer cattle. In those plants, he said, most of the animals would be in the pool the department wants to pick from for testing, so it doesn't matter much whether employees pick one downer over another.
The department doesn't try to test a certain number of cattle from any given slaughterhouse or even from any given state, Rogers said. That's because cattle ranching and slaughter tends to cross state lines and be a regional industry, he said.
So the department's testing program divides the nation into eight regions, including a Northwest region that covers Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Utah.
In each region, Rogers said, administrators have a yearly goal for a number of samples to draw from a larger group of animals at increased risk for mad cow disease: cattle showing signs of nervous-system illness and adult downer cattle.
Rogers said the program is "surveillance" testing, designed to find mad cow disease if it exists at a rate of one case per million cattle. As such, it has a different goal than programs in Japan and Europe that test many or all cattle bound for use in human food.
"People say, 'You should test every animal,' " Rogers said. "Well, that's not to determine a disease prevalence. That's a food-safety issue."
Peter Sleeth: 503-294-4119;
Andy Dworkin: 503-221-8239;
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