USDA says two Vermont sheep tested positive

April 11, 2002 The Associated Press by Wilson Ring
Two sheep seized a year ago from a Warren farm tested positive for a condition that might be a derivative of mad cow disease, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Thursday.

But the USDA also said the sheep might have had scrapie, a disease common to sheep that is not harmful to humans.

Additional tests will be conducted to learn what the affected animals were suffering from, but those tests could take two or three more years, said Linda Detwiler, a USDA veterinarian whose job is to keep mad cow disease out of the United States.

"Our intent is to continue with further testing to try to define which (condition) the sheep had," Detwiler said. Despite the positive finding, Detwiler said there was no risk to human or animal health in the United States.

Mad cow disease is an always-fatal brain disease found in Europe that can be transmitted to humans who eat infected meat. It was originally spread after animal parts were fed back to cattle.

About 100 people have died of the human version of mad cow disease in Europe. To date, the disease has not been found in North America and the USDA is determined to keep it from gaining a foothold.

In 1996 about 60 sheep were imported to Vermont from Belgium and the Netherlands during a brief opening in a ban on such imports. Those sheep or their offspring were living on two Vermont farms.

The test results released Thursday were of sheep from the Warren farm of Linda and Larry Faillace. Tests have not been completed yet on 235 sheep seized from the Greensboro farm of Houghton Freeman.

The sheep owners have maintained the government did not need to seize the sheep. And they have questioned the reliability of the science used to make decisions.

But the USDA said the results showed they did the right thing.

"We feel the tests today clearly justifies the actions that we've taken and to satisfy our goals here at the Animal Plant and Inspection Service and that is to monitor, prevent and erradicate any animal diseases," said USDA spokeswoman Alisa Harrison.

Freeman's lawyer Thomas Amidon said Thursday he learned the test results from a reporter. And Freeman had offered to pay for parallel testing as recently as six weeks ago, but he'd never heard back from the USDA, Amidon said.

Amidon said he thought the USDA was overreacting.

"I think there were other options that could have been utilized," Amidon said. "There are 800 scrapied flocks in the United states. This is not unique," Amidon said.

The Faillaces were out of town and could not be reached Thursday for comment.

The sheep tested positive for "atypical undifferentiated transmissible spongiform encephalopathy," or TSE, the USDA said in a statement. "Two of the better known varieties of TSEs are bovine spongiform ecephalopathy and scrapie in sheep."

Attention was focused on the sheep almost two years ago when four sheep culled from Freeman's farm tested positive for the same thing found in the tests results released Thursday, although it was never determined which form of TSE they actually had.

The positive tests prompted a nine-month legal battle that led to the seizure of 270 sheep on farms in Greensboro and Warren.

The USDA had expected to have the test results back within weeks of the seizure.

But Detwiler said additional biosecurity measures needed to be able to test the tissue taken from the sheep, which were destroyed in Iowa after being taken from Vermont.

And scientists had to make sure the testing procedures were satisfactory. Before the results were released they were reviewed by other scientists, Detwiler said.

Detwiler also said Freeman and the Faillaces had been paid fair market value for the sheep, although they were given the option of appealing the amount and asking for more money.

Amidon said Freeman had received a check on Monday that amounted to between $1,100 and $1,200 per sheep.

But he said proven rams were valued at $5,000 and other animals sold by Freeman and the Faillaces to other farmers, which totaled perhaps a dozen and were turned over to the USDA in 2000, were worth an average of $3,800.

"What we are trying to say is there is evidence of other values," Amidon said.

But he thought the process was ending.

"I think we are working towards conclusion."

Meanwhile, the Faillaces and Freeman cannot put animals such as cattle, sheep or goats on the land the sheep used for five years from the time the sheep left. And the property is being disinfected under the direction of the USDA.

Detwiler said remaining compost heaps would be incinerated.

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