Mad-Cow Question Lingers -
Was Animal A 'Downer' Cow?

By Alex Fryer
Seattle Times
Washington bureau
The public may never know whether the Yakima County Holstein infected with mad-cow disease was truly a "downer" cow, congressional investigators said yesterday.
The revelation comes as U.S. Department of Agriculture officials meet with Japanese counterparts in the next few days to try to negotiate an end to the Japanese ban on U.S. beef.
Japan had been the largest importer of U.S. beef before the infected cow was discovered in December.
The Japanese government says it wants all imported cattle tested for mad-cow disease, also called bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE).
The USDA says 100 percent testing is unnecessary, particularly since it banned cows unable to walk from entering the food supply.
The USDA maintains the cow processed at a Moses Lake slaughterhouse Dec. 9 wasn't ambulatory, and the agency made such "downer" animals ó thought to be most at risk of having BSE ó the focus of its response to the crisis. The workers at the facility say the cow was relatively healthy.
The mystery of the cow's condition at Vern's Moses Lake Meats may continue, said Robert White, a spokesman for Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., chairman of the House Government Reform Committee.
"We've come to the conclusion that we're never going to know for sure whether this cow was a downer," he said.
Japan rejects U.S. criticism
There's plenty at stake in the U.S.-Japan trade discussions, for Washington state cattle producers and local meat consumers.
Washington state exported more than $191 million in beef to Japan last year, according to the state Department of Agriculture, and growers want to return to the market.
Japanese restaurants and consumers are scrambling to replace beef on their menus or increase imports from Australia, said Sato Tadashi, agricultural attachÈ at the Japanese Embassy in Washington, D.C.
He bristled at suggestions by Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman and others that Japanese standards for BSE testing were "unscientific."
USDA recently said it would test up to 268,000 cattle that are most at risk for the disease, mainly older animals. Mad-cow disease most often occurs in cows older than 30 months.
About 35 million cattle are slaughtered annually, most of them younger than 30 months.
The USDA claims that's enough of a statistical dragnet to catch sick animals.
Tadashi laughed when asked if that was sufficient testing: "Nobody can say it is enough."
Was Yakima find accidental?
After mad-cow disease was discovered in Japan in 2001, authorities there began comprehensive testing.
Ten additional cows were found infected with BSE; five were outwardly healthy, and five were nonambulatory but had no symptoms of BSE.
"If the U.S. introduced the same inspections, maybe the U.S. would find more," he said, adding: "Health and safety issues don't have to be sacrificed in the interest of big meat packers.
"We don't request U.S. consumers to have the same concerns we do. But we'd like them to understand our concerns."
Tadashi said the Japanese government and media were very interested whether the Yakima County cow was visibly sick or whether the USDA discovered the first case of BSE in the United States by chance.
"The U.S. government is saying only downer cattle are vulnerable, but we don't think so," he said.
'Downer' definition vague
On Feb. 17, the House Government Reform Committee sent a letter to Veneman that included affidavits from three workers at Vern's Moses Lake Meats who said the BSE-infected cow was not a downer.
The slaughterhouse owner, Thomas Ellestad, told investigators he tested the cow to receive a $10 payment as part of the BSE-surveillance program by the USDA.
The letter stated: "If the new information is accurate, USDA's surveillance program may need to be significantly expanded."
In response, the USDA sent the Government Reform Committee hundreds of pages of documents pertaining to BSE sampling at Vern's Moses Lake Meats.
After reading the material, the committee determined there is no consistent definition of a downer cow, said White, the spokesman.
A USDA veterinarian at the slaughterhouse noted in his paperwork at the time which cows were lying down, but Ellestad said the cattle later stood up.
"It was a relatively healthy cow," White said. "If it had been brought a day or two earlier or was not sternal (lying down), does that cow get into the food system?"
Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Lake Stevens, a member of the House Agriculture Committee, said he did not support comprehensive testing. "Nothing has shown me that we need to test every animal in the country in order to achieve a goal of safety."
While he said he approved of the USDA response so far, the Agricultural Committee will continue its oversight role.
A joint House Government Reform and Agriculture Committee hearing is set for June to examine whether the USDA's testing for BSE is adequate and to explore lingering questions about what happened that day at the Moses Lake slaughterhouse, White said.
"We want to look at everything," he said.
Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company



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