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Monday, December 29, 2003  

News and analysis: Mad cow disease outbreak impacts us all

I've been rather relaxed in regard to the American mad cow disease problem. As a vegetarian, I thought I could afford to be. But, let's not understimate the disease -- officially bovine spongiform encephalopathy. Other countries have banned the importation of American beef and the industry is reeling from the blow. The recall now includes products anyone other than someone obsessed with reading labels might use.

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) - Cow parts - including hooves, bones, fat and innards - are used in everything from hand cream and antifreeze to poultry feed and gardening soils.

In the next tangled phase of the mad cow investigation, federal inspectors are concentrating on byproducts from the tainted Holstein, which might have gone to a half-dozen distributors in the Northwest, said Dalton Hobbs, spokesman for the Oregon Department of Agriculture.

Now, it's the secondary parts, the raw material for soil, soaps and candles, that are being recalled.

While some people fear consumers could be infected by inhaling particles of fertilizer or other products containing the mutated protein responsible for mad cow disease, a bigger concern is stopping tainted byproducts from infecting animal feed, believed to be the main agent for spreading the disease.

But tracing all of the sick cow's parts to their final destination, including numerous possible incarnations in household products, has proved challenging.

``It's like the old Upton Sinclair line - 'We use everything but the squeal,''' Hobbs said. ``We have nearly 100 percent utilization of the animal. But when you have so many niche markets, it makes it incredibly challenging to trace where this one cow may have gone.''

A major renderer with Portland facilities said Friday it was recalling rendered material that might have been effected by a mad cow corpse processed there.

Los Angeles-based Baker Commodities Inc., announced Friday that it has voluntarily withheld 800 tons of cow byproduct processed in its Seattle and Tacoma, Wash., plants. The company, like other "renderers," takes what is left of the cow after it is slaughtered and boils it down into tallow, used for candles, lubricants and soaps, and bone meal used in fertilizer and animal feed.

If the U.S. Food and Drug Administration determines that the material is tainted, the company's loss could total $200,000, spokesman Ray Kelly said.

"It's obviously a tragic thing for the whole beef industry, but it's definitely a sizable hit for us," he said.

The cow was traced to a dairy in Washington.

The dairy cow tentatively diagnosed with mad cow disease is a four-year-old Holstein from Sunny Dene Ranch in Mabton.

The ranch owner, veterinarian Bill Wavrin, declined to comment today, but referred questions to Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine's Charlie Powell, who confirmed the U.S. Department of Agriculture had gathered records from the ranch regarding the cow.

. . .Should further testing confirm an earlier test, it is possible that all 4,000 head of cattle at Sunny Dene Ranch could be euthanized and tested for mad cow disease, according to state protocols.

The cow was purchased in October 2001, likely from sale yards in Central Washington, according to Bill Brookreson, deputy director of the state agriculture department. It was sent to Vern's Moses Lake Meat Co., in Moses Lake, for slaughter, where it was classified as a "downer" cow because it was unable to walk after complications from an earlier pregnancy, Brookreson said.

Tom Ellestad, co-owner of Vern's, told the Columbia Basin Herald that the federal process set up to detect mad cow disease worked well. "We have done nothing wrong," he said. "The inspection system works because we caught this cow."

After a sample of nerve tissue was extracted from the cow for testing, the animal's brain and spinal cord were sent to a rendering plant in Spokane. That tissue was processed, but had not left the rendering plant, said Ray Kelly, executive vice president of Baker Commodities, Inc., which owns the facility.

The meat from the cow was made into hamburger.

Agriculture officials say the chance of humans developing becoming ill, either by eating tainted meat or being exposed to poisoned byproducts, are miniscule. But,

Since 1996, evidence has been increasing for a causal relationship between ongoing outbreaks in Europe of a disease in cattle, called bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, or "mad cow disease"), and a disease in humans, called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD). Both disorders are invariably fatal brain diseases with unusually long incubation periods measured in years, and are caused by an unconventional transmissible agent.

Yesterday, the recall effort was expanded to several more states. The list now includes Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana and Guam, along with Washington, Oregon, California and Nevada.

Reasonably related

  • At The Wh0rehouse, Victoria Pitt has recipes for people who like to eat brains.

  • Bill McCabe of Leaning Towards the Dark Side and Alan of Bubbalogic note the mad cow may have been imported to the U.S. from Canada. Alan is skeptical.

  • 1:33 PM