The owner of the slaughterhouse that killed the first U.S. cow found with mad cow disease has come forward to confirm the animal was able to walk at the time it was killed.
Tom Ellestad, who with his family runs Vern's Moses Lake Meats, not only believes the diseased cow was not what is known in his industry as a "downer," but disputed the portrayal of his plant as one that mostly handled sick and injured cattle.
His claim further throws into doubt the insistence of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that the cow was unable to move on its own, which required that it be tested for mad cow disease, as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, a fatal brain affliction, is commonly known.
Ellestad is a reluctant critic. He draws a distinct line between the USDA inspectors he works with daily and the agency's policy makers. But he believes the government has fallen short of its responsibilities to keep the public safe -- and, by refusing to aggressively expand its BSE testing, is largely responsible for other nations' refusal to start buying American beef again.
"I really believed USDA was going to address this … and say, 'Whoops, it looks like that cow was able to walk and we need to address that issue,'" he said in an interview with MSNBC. "It did not happen, and so this is where we're at now."
In fact, he remained quiet after the agency's Dec. 23 announcement that mad cow disease had arrived in the United States. Though he recalled the cow being able to walk, federal officials in Washington repeatedly described it as a downer.
Rather than go public, he tried to resolve this discrepancy in the next several weeks with USDA officials, all the way up to chief veterinarian Dr. Ron DeHaven, who has been leading the mad cow probe. USDA did not — and has not — changed its belief that the cow could not walk.
"Our business had been devastated," Ellestad said in an affidavit released Wednesday by the Government Accountability Project, which protects whistleblowers. "Our reputation had been maligned and the USDA knew the truth but had chosen not to make the truth about the BSE not being a downer available to the public."
His 18-page affidavit, and more than 20 pages of supporting documents, were supplied to the U.S. House Government Reform Committee, which requested earlier this week that the USDA toughen its testing plans for mad cow disease.
People who eat meat tainted with BSE can contract its human equivalent, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, which attacks the brain and is always fatal. Hundreds of victims have died from variant CJD, mostly in England, where a mad cow outbreak in the 1980s and early 1990s became a public-health crisis.
Ellestad's assertion also backs claims made by one of his former workers, Dave Louthan, who said he killed the infected animal and has publicly insisted it could walk. Louthan recently detailed his recollection of the events of Dec. 9, the day the ailing Holstein was slaughtered, in an interview with MSNBC .
Ellestad's version of events differs somewhat from Louthan's, who says he killed the ailing cow — which was standing — because it balked when being pulled from the trailer. Ellestad said in his affidavit he shared kill duties that day with Louthan, but wasn't sure which of them killed that specific cow.
However, the two recollections match in key aspects — notably that the sick cow was one of the first few in the gate end of the trailer. All four cows near the trailer gate were able to stand, Ellestad said, including the ailing one later tested to have BSE.
Vern's stopped accepting downer cows in February 2003, Ellestad said, and required all the farms that sent it animals and all the drivers that transported the cattle to sign agreements that they would not load onto their trailers any cow that could not walk. Vern's relied on drivers to ensure that all cows could walk onto trailers before being taken to slaughter.
Ellestad provided copies of a February 2003 agreement signed by the driver who transported the infected cow, stating that he would not bring to Vern's any such livestock.
The driver, Randy Hull Jr., also submitted an affidavit confirming that all three cows picked up from the Sunny Dene Ranch, in Mabton, Wash., where the infected cow was kept since being brought into the country from Canada in 2001, were not downers. "The animals each walked onto my trailer," Hull said.
Ellestad acknowledged many animals at his plant lay down in the trailers when they arrived or were skittish, and so were taken to the back of the slaughterhouse, where they were hoisted into kill pens. As such, they were considered "back door" cattle, not downers.
This arrangement, he said, was part of a more humane killing procedure that minimized the use of cattle prods to force cows that were sitting or lying down to walk up a chute to the slaughter pens. Vern's insisted on the practice, even when one USDA inspector insisted a cow be prodded until it walked.
According to a deal struck with the USDA, only Vern's back-door cattle had brain samples taken for BSE testing. All the cows on the trailer that contained the infected animal were back-door animals, according to the facility's daily kill sheet.
In fact, Ellestad insisted, he had originally rejected the USDA's request to conduct testing at his facility because they wanted to test downed cattle, and he did not consider any of the animals processed at his plant to be downers. The agency's policy was to test only downers for mad cow disease, but it eventually signed an order for samples from Vern's that did not specify the condition of the animals and paid $10 per sample.
The plant began mad cow testing in October, and took 258 samples by the end of the year, according to documents provided by Ellestad. Some 20,000 cows out of about 35 million slaughtered in the United States last year were tested for BSE. The samples from Vern's, which handles about 3,000 cows a year and is considered a "very small" plant by USDA standards, would account for more than 1 percent of all cows tested.
The department plans to test about 40,000 cows this year, though Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman said Thursday it "may be going beyond that." By comparison, France tests some 50,000 a week. Japan tests all cattle slaughtered for food.
USDA officials continue to maintain the cow in question could not walk, in part due to injuries sustained from giving birth in November while at the Sunny Dene Ranch, about 60 miles from Moses Lake, Wash., where Vern's is located.
Slaughter records provided to MSNBC by the USDA indicate the cow suffered internal bleeding and an enlarged uterus, typical injuries from calf birth but not a sign that an animal could not walk. And Ellestad recalled a conversation with an official involved in BSE testing who said the owner of Sunny Dene, veterinarian Bill Wavrin, decided to get rid of the still-ambulatory dairy cow after it showed difficulty walking through his milking facility.
The USDA on Thursday would not discuss the cow's condition prior to arrival at Vern's, saying it was under investigation by its inspector general's office.
But Steven Cohen, a spokesman for the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, reiterated Thursday the cow was "absolutely" a downer, as determined Dec. 9 by its on-site veterinarian.
The USDA has turned down a request by MSNBC to interview the veterinarian. The agency's records show the cow was marked as sternal, or lying on its stomach. Ellestad said the veterinarian inspected the animals while they were lying down and then went back inside the plant.
While the vet was asked to re-examine another non-ambulatory cow that later stood up, Cohen said, "that’s not what happened with the animal that tested positive."
Because his plant made the special distinction for "back door" animals, Ellestad stressed that he and USDA officials had repeated disagreements about the definition of downer cows.
He released papers that outline those disagreements, and recalled a heated discussion with a USDA deputy administrator over who should accept the cost of the voluntary recall of some 10,000 pounds of meat processed that day at Vern's. That official, Ellestad said, briefly threatened legal action against Vern's before backing down — and also said he had "handled many meat recalls very similar to this," despite it being the first BSE-related recall in U.S. history.
Rather than helping him, Ellestad said, the USDA tried to create a "smokescreen" to shift blame away from themselves by categorizing Vern's as a "downer plant," which he insists it is not.
At most plants, a walking cow — including the infected animal, as Ellestad and others have asserted — would never have been tested and would have entered the food chain. And the cow that tested positive likely would never have been tested if it had been sent to slaughter before its birth injuries.
"I believe that USDA has been willing to let the issue of whether this cow was a downer detract from the critical issue of what cattle should actually be tested," Ellestad said. "I personally feel that we need an extensive testing program for fully ambulatory cattle."
Ellestad submitted a Dec. 26 request to have all beef at his plant tested, even offering to collect samples for free. But no tests have been performed there since USDA officials asked him to stop in late December, leading him to wonder whether any current testing is being done on the human food supply.
USDA spokeswoman Julie Quick said 1,608 cattle samples were collected in January from dead cows and those sent to rendering plants — neither of which directly enter the food chain — and testing is done on any cow showing signs of a nervous system disorder.
But she was not sure whether any new facilities have been added to the agency's list of suppliers for the BSE test samples. "We haven't yet changed our policy on surveillance itself aside from deciding to double the number," Quick said.
Though Ellestad isn't sure how many cows should be tested, he believes U.S. officials should follow any guidelines requested by trading partners, including Japan, who have banned the import of American beef.
He would also like to see the USDA adopt rapid BSE tests used in other countries that can return results in 24 to 36 hours. Current tests can take nearly two weeks. DeHaven said on Dec. 31 that his agency would "be looking at as potentially starting" to use the tests. But Quick said no timeline has been set for implementing them.
A timeline for government action is precisely what Ellestad wants — one that will help stem the losses of jobs and income throughout the beef industry
"I really want us to get behind this," he said. "But USDA burying their head in the sand is not going to get it behind us. We need to confront it, address the issues and get on."
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