Dairy farm is disease source

Tri-Herald news services


MABTON, WA-- A dairy farm in this south central Washington town has been identified as the source of what could be the nation's first case of mad cow disease.

A government source said the cow came from Sunny Dene Ranch in Mabton. Sunny Dene has operations in Mabton and nearby Grandview.

There are about eight dairy farms in Mabton, dozens more in the surrounding area.

The case quickly affected at least one company associated with the slaughtered cow. Supermarket giant Safeway Inc. said it has stopped selling all fresh ground beef products from an Oregon supplier that received meat from the affected cow.

Dean Olson, a spokesman for supermarket chain Quality Food Centers, said a few people have returned beef to the stores, either for refunds or to get something else. QFC's beef comes from the Midwest, but it also voluntarily pulled from sale some ground beef that came from the Oregon supplier, Interstate Meat of suburban Portland, he said.

Albertson's also announced a recall on some ground beef products.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman announced Tuesday that a single Holstein from a farm near the town, about 40 miles southeast of Yakima, likely had mad cow disease. If confirmed by follow-up tests at a lab near London, the case would be the first in U.S. history.

Outside the Sunny Dene dairy, police warned that anyone entering the property without permission would be arrested for trespassing, so reporters lined up alongside a road that separates the farm and the Yakama Indian Reservation.

Many residents of Mabton -- population 2,045 -- were protective of local dairy owners and unwilling to discuss the matter with reporters, who were turned away from businesses and farms.

The town's mayor, David Conradt, said he did not expect "any financial hit" to the town, as long as the disease is limited to one cow. "The impact, I hope, is going to be minimal," he said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture said the cow was slaughtered at Vern's Moses Lake Meat Inc., in Moses Lake, about 70 miles northeast of Mabton, on Dec. 9, after she became paralyzed, apparently as a result of calving.

The USDA said Vern's was voluntarily recalling about 10,410 pounds of raw beef, but the agency's Food Safety and Inspection Service said there was an "extremely low likelihood" that the recalled beef contains the infectious agent that causes bovine spongiform encephalopathy, as mad cow disease is commonly known.

The human form of the disease, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob, is thought to be contracted by eating meat from an infected animal, specifically meat contaminated by the brain or spinal cord. Officials emphasized that these parts of the sick cow were removed before the rest of the carcass was sent to processing plants.

Tom Ellestad, co-manager of Vern's Moses Lake Meat, said he remains confident in the inspection system that led to the discovery. "We have done nothing wrong," he said. "The inspection system works because we caught this cow."

On one thing, though, Ellestad said he disagreed with the government. Federal officials have described the cow in question as a "downer" animal, meaning that it was unable to walk, which raises questions about whether it should have been slaughtered and put into the food supply.

But Ellestad remembers seeing the animal. "It was not a downer cow," he told The Washington Post, trying to hold back his anger. "I saw it walking."

Federal officials have said the cow suffered from obturator nerve paralysis, a common injury cows suffer while giving birth. It damages a big nerve that runs through a cow's pelvis.

Ellestad said his slaughterhouse has a policy of refusing to slaughter cows that look too sick or injured. "There are some animals that we will not accept," he said. "This cow looked relatively healthy. I saw her up and walking."

Vern's Moses Lake Meats, though, does specialize in slaughtering older dairy cows culled from dairy farms because they are injured or no longer produce milk in sufficient quantity.

Because of that specialty, Ellestad said, he agreed three months ago to participate in an Agriculture Department testing program for mad cow disease.

As part of the test, tissue from the brain or spinal cord of an animal that is believed to be at some risk of having the disease is sampled and sent off to a federal laboratory. Ellestad said the cow that tested positive was a likely candidate for the procedure -- although he did not say why.

"We are not a modern facility," Ellestad said. "We are a traditional slaughterhouse. But we can visually tell if we have gotten all of the spinal cord out of a carcass or not."

The USDA said the slaughtered cow was deboned at Midway Meats in Centralia, and the meat was sent to two other plants in the region, identified as Willamette and Interstate Meat.

Safeway, which has sold fresh ground beef products from Interstate Meat, said Wednesday it will stop doing so and will look for another supplier. "We're doing this voluntarily out of an abundance of caution," Safeway spokeswoman Bridget Flanagan said.

On Wall Street, stocks in meatpacking companies and restaurant chains took a hit. Among the losers: McDonald's Corp., Wendy's International and Tyson Foods.

U.S. beef exports totaled $2.6 billion in 2002, with Japan, South Korea and Mexico the biggest importers. They all have banned U.S. beef, along with at least eight other countries.


Albertsons asks customers in Washington, Oregon and northern Idaho to return recalled beef products. Page A8

Information on mad cow disease and what causes it. Page A8


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