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As probe of infected cow spreads, so does worry

(Saturday, Dec. 27, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Shankar Vedantam and Blaine Harden Washington Post: Cattle in other states may have eaten the same contaminated feed that infected a Washington state Holstein with mad cow disease, but investigators who want to track the infection to its source are being confounded by the lack of an organized system that would lead them to the herd where the cow was born, officials said yesterday.

The lack of a reliable tracking system, and a complex trail of clues, rumors and false leads, mean it could be days or months -- or never -- before all the links are fully explored, officials said. For a nation already jittery about the Holstein, the expanding investigation could spread worry.

"The epidemiological investigation becomes a tangled web of different possibilities," said W. Ron DeHaven, deputy administrator and chief veterinary officer at the Agriculture Department. "Some of those do lead back to Canada. Some take us into the state of Washington and other states, as well."

Already, consumers who ate meat that might have come from the sick Holstein are concerned. Grocery stores were shipped ground beef and beef patties from meat that included the infected cow 11 days before a test for mad cow disease came back positive and the meat was recalled -- it is not yet known how much of the meat was pulled off grocery shelves or has been consumed.

Five major grocery chains in Oregon and Washington have pulled ground beef from their shelves. In Oregon, some of the recalled meat has been accounted for at the wholesale level.

"But some has been distributed at the retail level, at which point it was sold," said Dalton Hobbs, a spokesman for the Oregon Department of Agriculture.

The developments came on a day when President Bush sought to reassure citizens that the food supply is safe; his spokesman said the president "continued to eat beef." Exports of U.S. beef are on hold to nearly two dozen nations, and a U.S. trade team was dispatched to Japan, which has banned U.S. beef imports. The officials expect to arrive in Tokyo by Monday to try to recover the Japanese market, which is worth $1.03 billion to the U.S. beef industry.

Two facilities in Washington state are now under investigation as transient stops for the Holstein between its birth herd and a Mabton farm, which sent it to the slaughterhouse on Dec. 9, DeHaven said.

The birth herd is where the Holstein was probably infected -- and from which infectious links could radiate in multiple directions. Investigators want to track down who supplied the birth herd with infected feed four or five years ago to deduce whether contaminated feed was also sent to other farms. There are gargantuan challenges in figuring out which other animals ate such infected feed, where they may be now -- and whether they might already be in the domestic and international food supply.

"It could be difficult to find out where the feed might have originated," said Stephen Sundlof of the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Veterinary Medicine. "Try to imagine what you ate four to five years ago. It's not something people keep very good records on."

For the first time since the mad cow case came to light on Tuesday, DeHaven and other regulators said they are considering strengthening the nation's testing system for mad cow disease, and installing an electronic tracking system that would follow animals from birth to death. They also plan to revisit a controversial USDA policy that allows non-ambulatory animals into the nation's food supply -- the infected Holstein was a "downer" cow -- many food safety advocates and legislative initiatives have unsuccessfully tried to eliminate these animals as a food source.

Officials insist that the nation's food supply is safe and that mad cow disease is unlikely to spread because of FDA regulations put in place in 1997 that are supposed to keep cattle from getting infected feed. Compliance with the ban has grown from about 75 percent in 1997 to more than 99 percent today, Sundlof said.

Still, the Washington state Holstein was probably infected after the ban was in place -- between the time it was born, about 1999, and the time it was acquired by Sunny Dene Ranch in Mabton in October 2001.

Mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, is associated with a fatal brain-wasting disorder in humans called variant Creutzfeld-Jakob disease. The disease has caused 154 deaths, mostly in Britain. It is believed to have spread because farmers fed ground-up brain and spinal tissue from infected cows to healthy cattle, and the feed carried deadly prions, misshapen proteins that cause the disease. There is no cure for mad cow disease or its human variant -- and infected people do not show symptoms for several years.

Experts say that even if large numbers of animals ate infected feed, only a minority would be likely to get sick, but it is difficult to quantify the precise risk for an individual animal.

DeHaven said there is also a very small chance that prions can be transmitted from a cow to its calves. Officials revealed yesterday that the infected Holstein had three calves. One died shortly after birth around October 2001, which was when the Sunny Dene Ranch acquired the cow from either a dairy facility or a livestock market, both of which are under investigation. A second calf, now a yearling heifer, is still at Sunny Dene Ranch, along with 4,000 other animals under quarantine.

A bull calf born recently -- the birth caused injuries that made the Holstein unprofitable to the farm, prompting it to be shipped to the slaughterhouse on Dec. 9 -- was sent to a bull calf feeding operation in Sunnyside, Wash.

Investigators say this calf is one of 400 ranging in age from seven to 30 days. The calf has not yet been identified. The Sunnyside facility has also been put under quarantine -- DeHaven said regulators had not yet decided whether the animals would be killed, or what kind of compensation would be paid to farmers if such a step were to become necessary. Millions of cattle were destroyed in Europe to control mad cow disease, and DeHaven said farmers have been compensated in the past.

DeHaven said that investigators were tracing the Holstein's antecedents through a dairy farm near Mabton and a livestock market by using information from the index farm, dealer records, and documents from state and federal offices.

"My hope is we will be able to identify that location within a matter of days," DeHaven said. He cited the experience of Canadian investigators, who unsuccessfully tried to identify the birth herd of a cow found infected with mad cow disease in May, adding that "it could also be a matter of weeks or months. It's also possible that we may not be able to determine it at all."

A recall of more than 10,000 pounds of meat was begun at 1:30 a.m. on Christmas Eve. The recall, which officials said was being ordered out of an abundance of caution, involved 20 carcasses, including that of the infected Holstein, that moved through a Moses Lake, Wash., slaughterhouse on Dec 9. The carcasses were shipped to a deboning facility called Midway Meats in Centralia, Wash., on Dec. 11, said Kenneth Petersen, an official at the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service.

Midway Meats deboned the carcasses and shipped the meat to two processors, Interstate Meat Distributors in Clackamas, Ore., and Willamette Valley Meat in Portland, Ore., Petersen said.

Mark A. Klein, the owner and president of Willamette, said that the company has tracked and identified all of the recalled meat. Most of it, he said, is still in the lockers at his company. The rest might be in coolers in retail shops in the Portland area, or it may have been sold to consumers this week.

Interstate ground the meat into ground beef or beef patties on Dec. 12 and began shipping products to stores on Dec. 13.

After the recall was announced, stores started removing meat from their shelves. Albertsons, the nation's second-largest grocery company, pulled some ground beef from 140 of its stores in Oregon, Washington and northern Idaho.

The supermarket chain WinCo Foods, which has 18 stores in Oregon and six in Washington, asked customers who purchased one kind of lean ground beef between Dec. 15 and Dec. 23 to return it, according to Mike Read, a spokesman. Some customers brought meat back to stores for a refund. Others wanted something far more difficult to obtain: reassurance.

Read said the store has fielded worried phone calls: "Customers have called in and said, 'I purchased it, and I have already eaten it and what should I do?' "

Harden reported from Seattle. Research editor Margot Williams contributed to this report.

Source: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A33163-2003Dec26.html