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On the USDA's Front Line Against Mad-Cow Disease; Detwiler Key to Keeping Illness Out of Country

On the USDA's Front Line Against Mad-Cow Disease;
Detwiler Key to Keeping Illness Out of Country

June 5, 2001 The Washington Post by Marc Kaufman
For almost five years now, U.S. Agriculture Department veterinarian Linda Detwiler has been on a daily lookout for mad-cow disease and all its related afflictions of sheep, elk and people.

She has traveled to meet European Union officials in Brussels so many times she knows exactly which flights will let her make the round trip in a day. She has spent time in countless slaughterhouses, rendering plants and feedlots in every state except Hawaii and Alaska.

So far, the work of Detwiler and those alongside her in other federal agencies has succeeded: The disease, which has caused almost 100 deaths in Europe and devastated the British beef industry, has never been found in American cattle or people.

Detwiler, who leads the mad-cow working group at USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), has played a key advisory role in the development of national policy on mad-cow and related diseases, and in 1997 recommended a controversial ban on importing all European cows, sheep and goats -- years before they were found to be infected outside the United Kingdom.

More recently, she was at the center of a bitter dispute over the March confiscation of two flocks of European-born sheep being raised in Vermont. Detwiler was convinced the sheep had to be destroyed because there was a possibility, however slight, that they were carrying the mad-cow agent.

But the flock owners and their supporters believed the government was overreacting. During the final court-ordered seizure, protesters carried signs denouncing "Dr. Deathwiler."

For the no-nonsense Detwiler, raised on a New Jersey hog farm and enamored of farm animals all her life, the criticism hurt and led to some restless nights. It also had a certain irony to it -- Detwiler has spent much of her government career working to protect sheep, and is considered a top expert in that small and specialized field. In fact, she is leading the mad-cow effort today largely because she knows so much about sheep.

"After I graduated veterinary school, I went to work with the government on the disease scrapie in sheep," she said, referring to another brain-wasting condition. "It was quite a backwater and I remember one of my teachers telling me I could do better. I swore to myself I would do it only a year."

But little-known scrapie turned out to be central in the spread of mad-cow disease. Many believe mad cow was created and spread by feeding parts of scrapie-infected sheep brains and nervous tissue to cows, which were later slaughtered and consumed by people. So 15 years after she learned the ins and outs of scrapie as a USDA vet in central Ohio, Detwiler's somewhat arcane speciality has enormous international relevance.

Mad-cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, was first detected in cows in the United Kingdom in the late 1980s, and elsewhere in Europe last year. Scientists initially believed it could not cross the "species barrier," but it was found in humans in 1996. "Since then," Detwiler said, "my life has never been the same."

Although the number of people harmed by mad-cow disease worldwide has been small, its initially mysterious origins, the fact that it can spread and its deadly consequences for humans have kept it in the public eye.

The disease has decimated the European beef industry -- millions of cattle have been destroyed, and sales were off 35 percent last year -- and there has been enormous pressure to keep it from doing the same here. The fact that British, and later European, health officials misunderstood the disease for years, and didn't stop its early spread, has made the job of keeping it out of the United States even more pressing.

"The lesson here is to be aggressive about limiting all risks," Detwiler said. "That means known risks, and theoretical ones, too."

Referring to the Vermont sheep, she said it is always difficult to "depopulate" a herd. But living on a farm as a child, she quickly learned that sometimes individual animals had to be sacrificed for the general health of the group. "I grew up with hog cholera, so I know how it feels to lose some animals to protect the others," she said.

In dealing with a danger such as mad-cow disease, perception of risk can be as important as the risk itself. So part of the federal effort -- and Detwiler's job -- has been to explain time and again that mad-cow disease is not present in the United States, and that if it was ever discovered, it would be quickly contained.

The effort has been generally praised, although a recent editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine called for greater federal scrutiny, saying the USDA has not done enough testing of U.S. cattle. Detwiler, recently back from a week in Europe observing mad-cow surveillance there, said she would like to see more testing, too.

Caroline Smith DeWaal of the consumer group Center for Science in the Public Interest has often criticized federal policies on mad-cow disease and other food-borne illnesses, but says she has been impressed by Detwiler's work at APHIS.

"In retrospect, their actions were critical in preventing the disease from coming to the United States," DeWaal said.

Working at such a visible public job is nothing Detwiler ever intended to do. That's hardly surprising, given the image of government work for veterinarians when she was a student.

"I travel a lot and talk at conferences and with students," she said. "I tell them something I certainly never heard when I was coming up -- that working for the government can be very challenging and really quite rewarding."


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