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Did USDA Falsify Records on Mad Cow in Washington State?

The New York Times
March 4, 2004

Official Tells of Investigation Into Mad Cow Discrepancies
By DONALD G. McNEIL Jr.

The government has begun a criminal investigation into whether documents
were falsified in the lone case of mad cow disease found in the United
States, the Agriculture Department's inspector general said yesterday.

The official, Phyllis K. Fong, told a House appropriations subcommittee that
the investigation focused on whether the Holstein dairy cow was a "downer" <
a cow too sick or injured to walk < when it was slaughtered on Dec. 9 at
Vern's Moses Lake Meats in Washington State.

The inquiry was "based on allegations that were reported in the media in
early February concerning possible alteration of official records," Ms. Fong
said. She declined to identify any targets of the investigation.

The official records of the veterinarian at the slaughterhouse, released by
the Agriculture Department in January, said the animal was "sternal, alert,"
meaning that it was conscious but down on its sternum, or chest, before it
was killed.

But three witnesses < the worker who killed the animal, the trucker who
hauled it to the slaughterhouse and an owner of the slaughterhouse < have
all said publicly that it was walking.

Dave Louthan, the slaughterer at Vern's, said in a February interview that
the cow walked to the edge of the truck when he killed it with a "knocking
gun" to keep it from doubling back and trampling the downed cattle inside.

At the time, Mr. Louthan said he believed that the slaughterhouse
veterinarian had falsified the records. He repeated that assertion yesterday
in more detail.

On Dec. 23, the day it became known that a cow from Vern's had tested
positive for bovine spongiform encephalopathy and a team from the
Agriculture Department arrived, he barged into the office of the
veterinarian, Rodney D. Thompson, and found him "hip deep in the paperwork
and writing like a madman," Mr. Louthan said.

The paperwork included the slips a veterinarian fills out on each animal in
which illness is suspected.

"I said, `Hey, this is wrong, that cow was a walker,' " Mr. Louthan said.
"And he got mad at me and said, `Then why the hell do I have him down as a
suspect?' " ("Suspect" describes any animal suspected of being seriously
ill, including downers.)

Dr. Thompson did not respond to phone calls or e-mail messages left for him
yesterday and has not spoken to the press.

The Agriculture Department tested fewer than 21,000 cows last year <
compared with millions in Europe < but Secretary of Agriculture Ann M.
Veneman has repeatedly said that amount is enough to assure that the
country's beef is safe because it focuses on downers, which were more likely
to be diseased. If the disease was found in a walking cow, the premise
behind the testing system would be undermined.

Asked yesterday whether it was possible that someone in the top ranks of the
department could have ordered Dr. Thompson to forge a report, Alisa
Harrison, the department's chief spokeswoman, repeated five times: "I cannot
fathom that that would happen."

Asked several times if she was saying it did not happen, Ms. Harrison said
Ms. Veneman did not order it. Asked if someone else in the top ranks could
have, she repeated, "I'm saying I cannot fathom it."

Mr. Louthan noted that the cow in question was the only one on the downer
record not having a temperature recorded that day. It was marked "unable to
get temp." It is easy to get a rectal temperature from a downed cow, he
said, but difficult to do so in a moving, upset one. He called the
absence of such a reading the "smoking gun" showing that the records were
changed.

A very low temperature indicates an animal is dying. A very high one
suggests it has a systemic infection. Both make it unfit for human
consumption.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company