Plea for fresh look at sick Tobin swine

Plea for fresh look at sick Tobin swine

May 13, 2001 Times Union by Dina Cappiello
Albany -- Group says 1979 case, if reopened, could change U.S. meat-safety policy

In 1979, 106 pigs waiting to be slaughtered at the Tobin Packing Co. showed signs of a central nervous system breakdown.

Some fidgeted in their cages, rubbing their skin up against the sides of the pen. Others wouldn't stop squealing or smacking their lips. And 14 pigs didn't survive three to four days in quarantine.

Most of the sick swine were sent through the plant, gutted and ground up to become animal feed.

"If they looked funny, they would cook them and sell it off for feed,'' said Sal Rinella, who worked as the plant's chemist for 10 /2 years, before it shut down in 1981 because of business conditions.

Not long after the pigs became sick, a federal researcher investigating the case for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Eastern Laboratory in Athens, Ga., would determine that 60 of the slaughtered swine had either encephalitis or meningitis, with no identifiable cause.

Back then, no one knew about mad cow disease, the deadly inflammation of the brain scientists believe can spread to other animals and to people through contaminated food. Had they known, scientists might have been more concerned with the case: The brain cells of one of the pigs were partly destroyed, according to a November 1979 USDA laboratory report -- a pattern found in mad cow infected cattle today.

Now, after the Tobin pigs have been dead for more than 20 years, a Poughkeepsie-based consumer group concerned with food safety wants the case to be reopened.

There is no evidence that pigs can carry a brain disease like mad cow, but if it is possible, the Tobin Packing Co. might have been one of the first places where it happened.

And if the pigs that left the plant did have a form of transmittable encephalitis -- an illness that is thought to be spread by animals eating tainted parts of other animals -- they created exactly the sort of situation experts say must be avoided.

Since 1997, the United States has banned feeding animal parts to grazing animals because of the dangers of spreading mad cow and similar diseases. But the law still allows parts of swine to find their way into animal feed. The reason: to date there has been no evidence that pigs can carry an encephalitis that is transmittable to animals or humans.

The Tobin case, if reopened, could change that, advocates say. And in turn, it could have ramifications for food policy nationwide.

"It was a weird disease. They didn't know the significance of it then,'' said Michael Hansen of the Consumer Policy Institute, which has written numerous letters to the Food and Drug Administration and USDA urging them to take another look at the case, with no results.

The FDA maintains that the illness in the 106 pigs has, scientifically, reached a dead end. Many of the tissues and brain samples were destroyed when the packing plant closed, and the whereabouts of the other samples are a mystery. scientists who have worked on the Tobin case have ruled out the possibility that a mad cow-like illness caused the 6-month-old hogs to act so strangely, even though some of the tissues were abnormal.

"These pigs were extensively reviewed by the USDA and independent scientists,'' said Carol Black of the USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service in Washington.

Bob Maguire, the Tobin plant superintendent for 22 years, remembers when the investigation started in the late 1970s. He said he didn't understand what all the hubbub was about. "That was the temperament of hogs all the time. You would get some that were docile, some that were aggressive,'' said Maguire, who supervised the killing of 6,000 pigs each week. According to Maguire, the pigs were agitated because of their journey to the plant. Most of the swine were trucked hundreds of miles from Midwestern farms.

Yet there was something about the Tobin pigs that has captivated Hansen and other government watchdog groups, as well as the small group of federal and academic scientists familiar with the case.

In 1996, Masuo Doi, who had been the USDA's on-site veterinarian at Tobin Packing, and Karl Langheinrich, the Georgia-based researcher who made the initial diagnosis of encephalitis or meningitis, asked the federal government to look at the case again. The trigger: 10 people in Europe diagnosed with variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, the human variety of mad cow.

In 1996 and 1997, the USDA sent cross-sections of the Tobin pigs' brains to researchers throughout the country. But this time, they were submitted to tests not available in 1979, and examined by researchers familiar with mad cow and how it works.

Additional research on pigs and transmissible spongiform encephalopathies -- the group of diseases that includes mad cow in cattle, scrapie in sheep and chronic wasting disease in elk -- had also shed some light on the Tobin case.

In Europe, pigs whose brains were injected with mad cow disease developed a similar illness. But to date, pigs fed contaminated mad cow tainted beef have not shown signs of the disease. variables, such as the age of the hogs, point to a cause unrelated to mad cow to explain the behaviors of swine at Tobin in the late 1970s. Even in cattle and sheep, mad cow and scrapie don't show up until at least 18 months. The pigs at Tobin were only 6 months old [The fact that pigs are slaughtered so young is the primary reason, according to Nobel laureate Daniel Gajdusek, why more cases "mad pig disease" haven't been reported. The fear is that pigs may have time to become infected and infectious but be slaughtered and enter the human food supply before they start showing symptoms--BSE coordinator].

Janice Miller, a veterinarian at the USDA's Agricultural Research Service in Ames, Iowa, was asked to review four of the Tobin slides in 1996. In her 24-year career with the agency, it was the first time she was ever asked to search for a mad cow-like illness in a pig. The USDA tests only animals known to contract the illness.

"I can't say what a normal pig looks like,'' Miller said in a recent telephone interview. "I had never been asked to look at a pig.''

Miller used the brain of a sheep infected with scrapie for a comparison. The sheep slides and the pig slides didn't match.

"There is no evidence they had the abnormal protein (that causes mad cow),'' said Miller.

Another piece of pig was sent to William Hadlow, a renowned expert on mad cow-like illnesses, in November 1996. Hadlow also saw no signs of a transmissible encephalopathy, although he did find an abnormality in the brain.

But Hadlow, who was retired at the time and living in Montana, said what he saw could have been caused by any number of viruses or bacteria. To be sure, he said, he would need more brain material, which he is unlikely to get.

"What more evidence are they going to get?'' said Hadlow, when asked about reopening the case. "You need more material to determine if TSE is in pigs in this country.''

Yet neither Hadlow nor Miller was sent the slide from pig #2097, the one Langheinrich said had signs of holes forming in the brain. Hansen, the consumer advocate who wants the case reopened, thinks that slide could make an important difference.

Both scientists said even a cursory glance at a brain infected with a TSE would be reason for a red flag. In severely developed cases, the brain of a TSE-infected animal is pocked with holes like swiss cheese.

"It's something that someone would recognize,'' said Miller.

The USDA, however, has said the case has been studied enough. It has not said publicly whether the call to revisit the case will be answered.

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