Associated Articles 2
The Next Mad Cow?
On the Lamb
The National Review
by D.T. Max
October 16, 2006
It was meant to be the United States Department of Agriculture's (usda) finest hour. On March 23, 2001, the agency's enforcement agents raided the Mad River Valley, Vermont, sheep farm of an artisanal cheese maker named Linda Faillace. The raid wasn't unexpected--eight months earlier, the agency had filed a "Declaration of Extraordinary Emergency" that declared its right to seize Faillace's 125 Beltex and East Friesian sheep. Their crime was that they were part of the only ovine flock, among approximately eight million sheep in this country, to have come directly from Europe, where mad cow disease is thought to have originated--and the usda suspected them of harboring the disease themselves.
In the wake of the declaration, Faillace, who describes herself as a "member of the underground food revolution," had insisted her flock was healthy, and she rallied state support. Vermonters do not take kindly to federal intervention, and so, on the day of the raid, protesters blocked the snow-covered driveway to the Faillace farm, hoisting signs that read illegal search and seizure and crimes of the usda. But they did little to deter the 27 armed federal agents in flak jackets and 13 usda specialists who slipped and slid in their loafers as, like latter-day Wile E. Coyotes, they carried off the bleating animals. The flock's destination was Ames, Iowa, the site of the usda's central lab, where they would be slaughtered and tested for mad cow disease. Like a scene from Charlotte's Web, Mary Jo, Linda's eight-year-old niece, cradled one doomed sheep named Kanga in her arms. "The pain was indescribable," recounts Faillace. "[These] innocent animals ... were not only our livelihood, but ... also our beloved companions."
But the usda had the broader nation's sympathy: What was at stake, the press was assured, was nothing less than the safety of the U.S. food supply. Mad cow, more properly called bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), is one of a family of highly infectious, nearly ineradicable diseases that kill by devouring their victims' brains. Cows get BSE through infected feed, and humans contract it by eating infected cows. At the time of the seizure, BSE in Europe had killed at least 180,000 cows and around 100 people. But one study, ongoing at the time of the Mad River seizure, had successfully transmitted BSE to sheep through feed. This meant that, theoretically, millions of Americans and Europeans could be exposing themselves to a horrible death with every bite of lamb they took.
And, indeed, the initial test results from the Faillace farm seemed to vindicate the usda. Eleven months after the seizure, in February 2002, the agency announced that two members of the flock tested positive for "an atypical [prion] disease of foreign origin." Linda Detwiler, the head of the mad cow disease working group for the usda, commented on television that the condition, in which the sheep's brains showed the presence of the deformed prion proteins that are a hallmark of the disease, resembled mad cow disease. The sheep, then, had been, at least potentially, a lethal ticking time bomb--the first cases of mad cow disease in the United States and the first confirmed cases of mad cow in sheep in the world. The usda declared itself satisfied with its intervention in the appositely named Mad River Valley, and President Bush himself praised the action. Detwiler, who had walked through a gauntlet of signs in Vermont with dr. deathwiler on them as she led the assault on Kanga, received a departmental "Heroism" award, went on "Good Morning America," and took a bow. "Let me ask you point-blank: Are you saying that these tests show there is a form of mad cow disease in this country in sheep?" Diane Sawyer asked. "Yes, we are," Detwiler answered.
But Detwiler's answer may have been somewhat premature. Prion science is not like viral or bacterial science--results do not come in a day or two. The only way to conclusively figure out what the Vermont sheep harbored was through a bio-assay--tissue from the culled sheep had to be injected into mice, the mice allowed to sicken and die, and then their tissue examined to see if molecular traces of the disease fit any known condition or represented a new one. The process usually takes anywhere from three months to one year. But, soon after the announcement of the "atypical [prion] disease," the usda officials let interested parties know that it would likely take much longer. The premier prion disease testing facility in the world, in England, was busy, they said: a comment akin to saying that someone was using the pencil. There were other facilities that could do the work, but the usda never pursued it. Five years after the raid, the usda's finest hour is beginning to look like just another example of the agency's frightening incompetence.
Linda Faillace never resumed her career as a sheep farmer: The raid ruined her financially, and she and her husband now run a country store dedicated to locally grown foods. But she remained angry about the usda's raid and had the good fortune to find a co-defendant with deep pockets--an octogenarian farmer and heir to the AIG fortune named Houghton Freeman, who lived nearby and also had his 200 sheep seized. Freeman was willing to dig into those pockets to fight back against what he also saw as a usurpation of private property.
Faillace and Freeman are now in their fourth lawsuit against the government and have spent around $400,000. "It's not about money at all," Faillace says. "It's about showing sheep don't get mad cow disease and not wanting this to happen to other people." She has just published a book called Mad Sheep: The True Story Behind the usda's War on a Family Farm, the cover a photo of Martha, the best-loved sheep in the flock, as Faillace saw her for the last time: through the bars of the usda trailer. The book does an excellent job of pointing out that the USDA's case, which, in 2001, seemed pretty good, by now seems extraordinarily weak.
One of the spurs for the usda's raid may have been the criticism it was getting in the wake of the mad cow epidemic in Europe. At the time, the United States had not yet recorded a single case of mad cow disease. The usda believed that was because of the excellent oversight the agency provided the nation's approximately $60-billion beef industry. But others weren't so sure. Skeptics--including many at public health agencies like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)--noted that perhaps the reason the usda hadn't found mad cow in the United States was that it wasn't looking. Whereas the United States tested one in every 18,000 cows for the presence of BSE, European countries tested vastly more. Besides protecting the nation's food supply, the usda's second task is to protect the meat industry's markets at home and abroad--four former beef lobbyists were among the top appointees at the usda--and skeptics hinted that perhaps the noteworthy absence of zeal was connected to this fact.
So, in the snowy fields of Vermont, the usda picked a fight it could not lose. The p.r. risk seemed low and the offense to the beef industry negligible: In the ag world, beef trumps lamb, lamb trumps cheese, and just about everything trumps a bunch of long-hairs making artisanal cheese in Vermont. To make sure everyone got the message that the usda was supremely vigilant, the agents even demanded the surrender of the family dog and llama. Kanga and friends were placed aboard the lethal trailer and the usda agents poured bleach on the tires of the vehicle to remind the folks at home of the extraordinary threat posed by the prion particle (ordinary methods of disinfection don't harm it; only bleach can kill it). "The truck had never been on the farm. It had only been on the road," remembers Faillace. "It was a useless gesture."
On a technical level, the case has not withstood the test of time. The Rubinstein Lab at the Institute for Basic Research on Staten Island, the lab where the key tests on the Vermont flocks were done, has since been closed for multiple violations of lab standards, throwing the results into doubt. And, since the raid, the European work suggesting that sheep can get mad cow disease has been discredited, because it turned out the researchers mixed up their supply of sheep brains with their supply of cow brains. (Detwiler says that the relevant tests were done before the contamination and that the decision to seize the Freeman and Faillace sheep was not motivated by the discredited European study.)
In fact, it was entirely possible the Faillace flock didn't have mad cow at all, but a prion disease, enzootic to sheep, called scrapie. Scrapie has been known for 200 years, and, though it is highly contagious among sheep (and possesses the spectacular symptom that affected animals rub their coats off in a mad frenzy before collapsing and dying), it does not seem to pass on to humans who eat infected lamb. Scrapie is still a highly contagious disease that mandates seizure of affected animals and quarantine of their flocks, but not the removal of all the animals. In addition, one of the bio-assays undertaken on one of Freeman's sheep thought to have a prion disease turned out negative in 2001. If that turns out to be the case with the Faillace sheep, Detwiler, who, soon after the Battle of Mad River Valley, left the usda to consult for various food corporations, might go from hero to goat-- and the department with her.
This would be consistent with what we have learned about the usda since Mad River. A series of botched BSE investigations in the past three years has severely injured the agency's credibility. Mad cow has come to North America, eleven cases to date--"an outbreak," according to Larry Schonberger, a CDC official who monitors the threat of prion diseases to humans in the United States. Of those eleven, three were found in the United States, and the agency behaved ineptly in all three investigations. In a Texas case, for instance, the agency neglected to report a positive result on a test because it considered the protocol experimental. ("The laboratory folks just never mentioned it to anyone higher up,'' a usda spokesman explained.) Sixty-five nations have, at one point or another, closed their doors to U.S. beef imports in the last three years.
But the fundamental mystery of why the usda never did the bio-assay test remains unanswered. One government public health official said that, in his view, the usda would probably never do the bio-assay. "They don't want to be embarrassed by their being wrong," he said. Jim Rogers, the agency spokesperson, disputes this. He says that, in fact, the usda is finally about to sign a contract with Great Britain's testing center. If it happens, other government officials interested in human safety will be happy to hear it. "Periodically, I ask the usda: Is it going forward?" says Schonberger. "And they say they still have the samples in their freezer. We supported the move to seize the Vermont sheep, and we would be interested in knowing what the agent is, and who might be at risk. Was it BSE, or was it not?" When asked to explain the agency's multiyear delay, Rogers, who was at Mad River Valley, ascribed it to "government craziness" and the fact that Kanga and friends are now safely disposed of: "After the sheep were destroyed, they were not a high priority for testing because the threat was eliminated," he says. Meanwhile, three comparable bio-assays are planned in Europe using sheep culled there and suspected of having BSE. These tests may give the world reassuring or unsettling results. But one thing is for sure: If there is a mad sheep epidemic, the usda will be the last to know it.
D.T. Max is the author of The Family That Couldn't Sleep: A Medical Mystery, a cultural and scientific history of prion diseases.
Consumers Union says USDA cut in Mad Cow testing puts public health at risk
Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, today severely criticized the US Department of Agriculture for reducing its mad cow surveillance program.v
“The USDA is playing Russian Roulette with public health,” stated Michael Hansen, Ph.D., a staff scientist at Consumers Union. “We must have continuing, increased monitoring of US cattle for mad cow disease, not just a two-year “snapshot”. Just because we only found three cases so far, doesn’t mean US cattle are immune. Yet today USDA has reduced testing to a miniscule level—40,000 cows a year, or a tenth of one percent of all cows slaughtered.”
The USDA claims that its testing program, which has sampled 759,000 cows in the last two years and found two additional cases of mad cow disease in addition to the one found previously, shows that the incidence of the brain-wasting disease in US cattle is less than 1 in a million. Consumers Union counters that USDA primarily tested dead animals, rather than higher risk cattle such as animals exhibiting symptoms of nervous system disease. “We don’t agree with USDA’s modeling of risk, and USDA has refused to disclose many key details of its test program.” Hansen states, “Therefore, it is impossible to draw definitive conclusions from USDA’s test program to date.”
Consumers Union points out that the US now has no restrictions on imports of beef or live cattle under 30 months of age from Canada, where the seventh case of mad cow disease in six years was recently confirmed. Hansen comments, “With such a small testing program in the US, if an infected Canadian cow came across the border, USDA would almost certainly fail to catch it. Steak from the cow could end up on some consumer’s dinner plate, while its remains could be converted to feed for pigs and chickens, potentially spreading the disease.”
Mad Cow and American Beef Trade
Aired: Monday, March 27, 2006 10-11AM ET
By host Tom Ashbrook
The headline is perplexing. Creekstone Farms of Kansas wants to test all the beef it processes for mad cow disease. And the United States Department of Agriculture says no. To many Americans, that is perplexing.
Mad cow has left 150 humans in Europe with brain-wasting disease. Creekstone isn't saying everyone has to test. But the beef industry in general does not want to touch universal testing. And the USDA is adamantly opposed. In fact, it's about to cut back on mad cow testing. Now, Creekstone is suing to go the other way.
Hear a conversation with the head of Creekstone Farms about the mad cow disease testing and the USDA on why it says no.
Mad Government Disease
Ludwig von Mises Institute
By Christopher Westley
March 26, 2001
Farmer Freeman woke up one morning last week to find two dozen armed federal officers on his Vermont farm, gathering up his sheep. They were taking them to Iowa, where the sheep would be slaughtered and then tested for mad cow disease.
This wasn't Freeman's first mad-cow encounter with the government. Last summer, Freeman and other sheep farmers rejected an offer to voluntarily liquidate their herds in exchange for $2.4 million in payment. A legal battle ensued, in which the courts rebuffed the government's sheep buy-back program. The government decided to start taking sheep anyway.
It is a frightening Reno-like episode of the state resorting to legal coercive power after its efforts have been thwarted in the courts. Moral justification is based on the assumption that markets are inherently instable and, if left to operate on their own, inevitably would infect us all with sickness and disease.
The truth of the matter, of course, is that government policy worsens the dangers of outbreaks such as mad cow disease. Much of this mad cow crisis, in fact, has been fabricated so as to justify the already bloated budgets of the Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration.
Freeman raises sheep, not for their meat or wool, but for their milk, which is used in the production of exotic cheeses. Last summer, the Vermont Health Department asked sheep owners to stop selling the cheese, even though there is no evidence that mad cow disease can be spread through milk.
The USDA has said that four sheep from Freeman’s flock showed signs of transmissible spongiform encephalopathy, which is a class of neurological diseases that includes both bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease, and scrapie, a sheep disease which has been in the United States since 1947 and which is not harmful to humans. Although there have been no confirmed cases of mad cow disease in the United States, the government said that Freeman's sheep could possibly have BSE because they might possibly have been exposed to mad cow disease through contaminated European feed.
The USDA tests could not confirm whether the sheep have BSE or scrapie. The animals will be killed and their brain tissue studied at a USDA lab in Ames, Iowa. We can assume there will be enormous political pressure on the lab workers there to find something egregious with the sheep in order to justify the government’s egregious actions that were employed in getting them there.
George Gray, a government scientist employed at Harvard University, admitted the risk posed by the animals is small. But, he added, "You can construct a chain of possibilities" leading to widespread contamination. "It’s impossible to say never," he said. "It’s impossible to say it couldn’t happen."
On any given day, there are an infinite number of bad things that technically could happen. If this has become the argument for infinite government intervention in our lives—intervention which, by the way, makes for a pretty nice living for Harvard scientists—then we might as well file away the Constitution and declare the framers’ experiment dead.
What’s irritating about mad cow disease is that it has been the actions of the British government that have made the problem grow to its present proportions. In a market setting, farmers have an incentive to reduce the incidence of such diseases because of the impact on profits. Farmers would institute precautionary measures while purchasing insurance to cover their losses.
However, when the benevolent British state reimburses farmers for livestock lost to mad cow disease, the market’s tendency toward minimizing the effect of such diseases is impeded. In fact, the farmer who plans poorly is compensated for his bad decisions on his farm. Moral hazard exists in any setting.
Robert Higgs’ analysis from his book Crisis and Leviathan is especially applicable here. The incentives that exist to the public-sector actor are completely different from that which influences his private-sector counterpart. A mad cow scare allows the Department of Agriculture bureaucrat to achieve his goal of spending his budget—or even exceeding it, perhaps, so as to justify larger budgets in the future.
Politicians have the incentive to comply with this scheme, since public-sector employees represent a large voting bloc. In the process, new layers of bureaucracy will be created, and they will remain after the crisis recedes. We should expect more talk of crises in the news whenever bureaucrats feel pressure from politicians to reduce spending.
And so government grows, like a disease. The cure involves dividing it and reducing its size before it kills the body politic. It remains to be seen whether any cases of mad cow are ever found in the U.S. It’s clear, however, that we should be much more concerned about the state’s response to the disease than about the disease itself.
Christopher Westley, adjunct scholar of the Mises Institute, is an assistant professor of economics at Jacksonville State University.