msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 2/4/2004 8:46:32 PM ET 2004-02-05T01:46:32

The lone U.S. cow with mad cow disease was not a "downer," as federal authorities assert, according to a slaughterhouse worker who says he killed the stricken animal. The claim comes as an international panel told federal officials Wednesday that more U.S. cases of mad cow disease are likely.

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David Louthan, a former employee at Vern’s Moses Lake Meat Co. in Moses Lake, Wash., described his experiences with downer cows to Washington state legislators Tuesday. 

In recent newspaper interviews, Louthan described a profoundly different scenario about the death of the ailing cow than that given by the government.

According to Louthan, the Holstein diagnosed with mad cow disease was frenzied and acting wild, which prompted him to shoot a bolt into its head. Prior to that, Louthan said, "she was a walker."

Louthan said the cow could walk on its own and wouldn’t have been tested had he not killed it outside the slaughterhouse. Under plant policy, cows killed outside of the facility are automatically tested. The testing, Louthan said, was merely “a fluke.”

He said he shot the animal because he feared it would trample downed cows that were in the same trailer.

The infected cow was slaughtered Dec. 9 in Moses Lake, about 70 miles northeast of Mabton, Wash., where it had lived on a dairy farm. Louthan claims he was laid off from the company two weeks after killing the cow, after he told television crews that the cow had already been eaten.

Plant manager Tom Ellestad also confirmed in newspaper interviews that the cow in question could walk when it arrived at Vern's. Ellestad did not immediately respond to inquiries from MSNBC.

A third employee of the slaughter house told The Oregonian newspaper that the cow was walking when it arrived.

The Government Accountability Project, which assists whistleblowers, said it investigated and verified Louthan's story. "We talked to him, we checked his story out," said Jack Pannell, the project's communications director, "and were able to say with pretty solid evidence that that cow was a walker."

This portrayal clashes sharply with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's description of the ailing cow. One day after the Dec. 23 announcement that the cow had tested positive for mad cow disease, USDA officials said the animal was a so-called “downer” — an animal too sick or weak to walk by itself.

The USDA has referred to the records of the veterinarian that examined the cow Dec. 9, and says the inspection showed the cow to be a downer. USDA spokesman Steven Cohen said the cow had been injured during calving and was lying down when an inspector checked it at the slaughterhouse.

“In the opinion of the veterinarian that examined the animal, that was a nonambulatory animal,” Cohen said. The testing for mad cow disease was prompted by that conclusion.

Testing for mad cow disease in the United States has largely been limited to downer cows.

Cohen was unsure whether Louthan indeed killed the cow in question, and it was not clear whether the inspection occurred after Louthan has said he shot the cow and scooped out a sample of its brain. USDA officials were not available for additional comment Wednesday evening.

In his testimony Tuesday, Louthan said Vern's specialized in processing downed cows, and decried what he described as gut-wrenching treatment of the nonambulatory cattle, including ripping off their legs and leaving them to lie or cutting off their ears "so the dairy could save a plastic ear tag."

"I've seen and killed thousands of downers," said Louthan, who has said he enjoyed his slaughtering job before being fired. "I'm not the most sensitive guy in the world, but that makes me sick."

More cases expected
Although the cow was traced to a Canadian herd, more than 35 countries including Japan, Mexico and Korea have banned imports of American beef. Those bans, and the U.S. response to the mad cow finding, were the subject of review by a panel of experts, which reported their findings Wednesday to the USDA.

The panel noted there was a "high probability" that other infected cattle have been imported from Canada and possibly Europe. Their report gave no estimate of how many animals, and said contaminated material "has likely" been rendered into cattle feed.

Mad cow disease can be spread through livestock feed contaminated with high risk parts from infected animals, such as the brain, spinal cord or nervous system tissue. Hence, the panel suggested, federal officials should ban this specified risk material (SRM) in livestock feed and pet food to prevent the spread of mad cow disease.

"All SRM must be excluded from all animal feed, including pet food," the panel's chairman, Urlich Kihm, told a special meeting of USDA officials.

The panel also said the government should consider banning from human food the brain and spinal cords from all cattle over 12 months of age. Currently, such material is banned only from cattle over 30 months of age.

Also, All animal protein -- such as meat and bone meal from rendered animals -- should be banned from cattle feed, the panel said. Such a ban "is justified partly due to the issues of cross-contamination," it said.

Another necessary step is for the United States to test all "at risk" cattle over 30 months of age, the experts said. Those would include animals that die on the farm, which may require offering financial incentives to farmers.

The panel was appointed by Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman after the United States' first case of the brain-wasting disease was reported in a Holstein dairy cow in Washington state on Dec. 23. Discovery of the disease halted some $3.8 billion in annual American beef exports.

The infected U.S. cow found by the USDA last month was imported from Alberta, Canada, in 2001. Canada reported its own first domestic case of mad cow disease last May.

'A case a month'
Kihm said the United States "could have a case a month" of mad cow disease. He said he based that estimate on the experience of nations such as Denmark and Italy, and new studies showing that as little as 10 milligrams of infected brain tissue could infect a cow. Mad cow disease, the popular term for bovine spongiform encephalopathy, eats holes in the brains of cattle and is incurable.

However, Kihm said the United States would not see the kind of outbreak that hit Britain in the 1980s. Some 140 people, most in Britain, have died of the human form of the illness, caused by eating contaminated beef products.

Another member of the panel, William Hueston, director of the Center for Animal Health and Food Safety at the University of Minnesota, told reporters that he "wouldn't be surprised if they found two or three more cases in the United States."

Government officials downplayed Kihm's remarks.

"Even if there are more cases, we have already taken the measures that are needed to protect public health," said Ron DeHaven, the USDA's chief veterinarian, who is leading the investigation into the infected Washington state cow.

Another USDA official said scientific evidence suggested a "very, very low prevalence" of the disease in the United States, which slaughtered nearly 36 million cattle last year.

Stephen Sundlof, director of the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Veterinary Medicine, said the panel's report "paints a very different picture" than a risk analysis prepared in 2001 by Harvard University researchers. That report concluded existing U.S. safeguards were adequate to deal with the disease.

Sundlof said the FDA had made no decisions on whether to follow the new recommendations.

Since the discovery last December, agriculture officials have killed more than 700 cows in Washington, Oregon and Idaho. And the USDA plans to boost mad cow tests to about 40,000 cattle this year, double the number tested last year.

"We would urge the government to come out with restrictions on specified risk materials that reflect the findings of this review panel," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director for the consumer group Center for Science in the Public Interest.

MSNBC's Jon Bonné, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

© 2013 msnbc.com

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