USDA and mad-cow fears

April 11, 2001 Providence Journal-Bulletin Editorial

Britain's deadly "mad cow disease," more formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), has not yet officially arrived in the New World, but the social trauma it can cause has already arrived, somewhat ironically as sheep.

People were shouting Nazi epithets at government officials in Vermont last month because 355 East Friesian sheep imported from Belgium and the Netherlands in 1997 were being seized and slaughtered to avoid any possibility of bringing mad cow here, even though no one could prove that the sheep carried a variant of the deadly disease, which has killed nearly a hundred humans in Europe and for which there is no cure. The action came in after a federal court order denying an injunction and an appeal of a court's refusal to stay the seizure.

These were not some hillbilly farmers challenging the government. One is a millionaire philanthropist and the other a couple with strong scientific backgrounds. The sheep themselves were unusual, imported (with government blessing at the time four years ago!) because of their milk, not wool production. Both owners refused million-dollar offers to give up their flocks without a fuss. (Another Vermont farmer acquiesced quietly.)

The drama played out amidst growing criticism that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has not done enough to protect America from BSE, which in cows and humans causes a rapid and irretrievable wasting of the brain. Specifically, as shown in a recent 60 Minutes broadcast on CBS, animal parts are still getting into cattle feed. BSE in Britain has been traced to this bovine cannibalism. With no known examples of a variant of BSE migrating into sheep, it is not surprising that some felt that Vermont was a case of sacrificial lambs.

The real issue in dispute here was government authority. Unlike the U.S. cattle industry, whose lobbyists can influence policy behind closed doors, the Vermont sheep farmers had the temerity (or perhaps lack of choice) to take their dispute public. They openly challenged the government's judgment that the sheep had to go. This, in turn, raised the stakes, endangering USDA's role as overseer of our food supply (and in this case, responsibility for public health). Seizure of the sheep became a fight the government could not afford to lose.

Thus it's not too surprising that no official was willing to criticize USDA.

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